Order Paperback Copies of my books at Lulu
eBooks in all formats at Smashwords
Fabulous Furry World
Dark Humor -Horror, fantasy & sci-fi
Published at Amazon.com by Gary L Morton
Copyright by Gary Morton 2010
Fabulous Furry World
Here Comes the Sun
Long John Silver’s Ghost Machine
Trash.exe Rules the World
The Faceless One
Monster of the Megacity
Halloween Convention Report
Grim is Coming to Town
There is no Rest for the Stupid
Murder Laundromat Inc.
Upbeat and Out
The Grand Prize
That Beautiful Feeling
All I Want is Santa
End of the Line
Fabulous Furry World
© By Gary L Morton
Jack floated in Nirvana, enjoying a dream of lying naked on a pleasant blossom of darkness. His exhalations swirled in the silence, and then something began to burn. A flaming configuration of stars spun to a constellation in the shape of number 666 and descended.
With a snap of his neck and a snort, Jack awoke. Morning light frosted the window, tinting it the color of pink grapefruit. Yawning, he rose, judging the dream to be a product of rich food.
Time for a shower, he stepped through a sunburst door to bathe in warm spring rain and golden beams. Breezes from a fragrant meadow lightened his step as he walked to his grooming cubicle.
A slash of his right hand and he hit the repair bot’s hidden off panel, cutting the robots. Under no circumstances would Jack allow a fluttering robot hand to shave him, and that was because of his own fine hands. His fingers were strong and dexterous and he lent them to no occupation. They held powers of communication, especially when it came to arousing women. His hands cupped breasts like they were the Maker's hands and they also formed even crenellations of lather on his chin. Jack closed his eyes and pictured pale breasts as he drew the razor down his jaw. A healthy stroke and a healthy thought. It occurred to him that his fine hands also aroused other men, and the thought was like another razor springing on him. He almost cut his throat as he groaned. Jack didn't care much for other men, though by law he had to love another man at least once a week … the law being one of the results of Special Referendum 100555, which declared mandatory bisexual love. Some people broke the law, but a lifeplan consultant like Jack had to obey the rules.
Lather spun down the drain and his thoughts went back to his 17th wife. Perhaps he should have contested the vote of the divorce committee. His hazel eyes met him in the mirror; they were a fine design that conveyed the brighter emotions especially well. Also admirable were his features, even in a world where everyone was beautiful. There was a trace of the smart guy in his grin, but an innocent one who seemed to laugh from a superior height of harmlessness, like he knew your life was a joke - and the punch line of it - though you didn't quite know it yourself. Character was his radiance; the losers all prettified themselves or tried to look too flamboyant or rugged and came off as too perfect to be desirable. The losers, as he referred to them, were people who had fine brains they didn't use. They were nearly everyone in the world, and they were his clients; the people who hired him to think for them.
A trace of charcoal showed under his eyes and for a moment, he imagined what the ravages of father time would do to his face. It almost made him shudder. He had just the stuff for bags; a bottle of vanishing cream that matched his skin tone.
His purse popped out of a cabinet shell, and as he grabbed the jar, he thought he saw a spot of red in his hair transplant. Could he have nicked himself there? Using his left hand, he parted the locks. Bright red numbers were stamped on his scalp - 666. They wouldn't rub off and as he worked at them, he could see something reaching for him in the reflection. It was a bronze light fixture, warping itself into a hand of twitching metal fingers stretching toward his neck.
Startled, he jumped and a puddle on the floor caught his heel, then he ran on the spot as he slipped to his knees. His chin bumped the basin and the bottle of skin cream slopped onto his head.
A fast glance behind showed the hand shrinking back into form as a light fixture, so he got up, rubbing his chin. Gobs of cream covered his hair transplant and the number. Picking up a water jet, he cleaned away the cream and immediately saw the fixture begin to vibrate. Experimentally, he rubbed a drop of the vanishing cream into the number; it went opaque and the fixture fell still. Whatever the number was, it obviously stimulated inanimate objects dangerously. An ordinary citizen, who didn't do any thinking, wouldn't have figured that out, and would now be in the clutches of a metal hand. Jack wasn't quite sure what to do about it. He decided to keep the number covered. It didn't worry him that much; people were immortal and protected and didn't have to fear minor hazards. Still, it could be an embarrassing problem. A problem he'd never heard of before and he dealt with just about every sort of personal problem through his work.
In the main room, the breakfast nook assembled before him like a large house of cards, and he sat with his hands folded as a cup of black coffee rolled over. He spotted hair in the brew and plucked it out with distaste - a filthy piece of robot fur and a problem that had come with the Lightning Law Votes of a decade ago. Back then, it had been voted that all robots must be cute and cuddly.
A reluctant bite of breakfast, then he walked into his living station. There were thirty minor items to vote on, but as the holo screens flashed, he decided to skip voting. As far as he knew, he was the only person that ever skipped voting. A view of a thunderstorm appeared and he began to shiver, then he adjusted the set for plain viewing. It was a smart move, because a view of a sewer appeared - dark sludge running in concrete gullies to filtering tanks. The camera panned up to a ledge where a man on a concrete bench was sipping coffee. Professional lighting revealed it as a planned shot. The man wore a suit of protective plastic, but had the helmet and gloves off to eat. Taking a sandwich from a tin lunch bucket, he began to chew, swallowing the sandwich in a few bites as the national anthem played.
An unseen announcer spoke. “Citizens of Fabulous Furry World, here is today's message from President Joe Smith.”
“Mornin' folks,” Joe Smith said. “I'm proud to be president and I'm proud to be the last sewer worker in this great nation. This sewer is the setting I chose to help the leisure classes remember the workin’ stiffs of this land. Today there has been a lunch box, ballot box victory for workers. I'm proud to announce that Constitutional Referendum 200175 has legalized facial hair on both men and women.”
A hand signal and the screen went dead. Jack scowled as he got up. Today's president was a meathead, the sort of working class demagogue he hated. Sometimes he wished he could start a grass roots campaign to vote out Amendment 5, the law voted in to guarantee every citizen the right to be president for a day. It was unfortunate that the amendment was in the sacred cow category and he couldn't hope to challenge it.
At the exit chamber, Jack decided to check his itinerary before tangling with the outside world. It was an exercise day, meaning he’d flash to work on the public transfer. Adjusting his wardrobe, he drew out a shimmering suit, a rocket jacket and air roller-skates. In theory, he was supposed to walk part of the way, but down on the lower streets there were protesters on every corner, so if he didn't rocket over them, or roller around them, he’d never get to the office. The right to protest was another sacred cow of course, and it was abused by the loose gangs of street activists and radicals - mostly one-track-mind single-issue protestors who went on for decades trying to get ludicrous items voted into law, or else trying to get new referendums on ironclad amendments they disagreed with. Other than the president, there were only local politicians, and they represented issues and not territories. One of the reasons today's president, Joe Smith, was ridiculous was that he thought an organized working class existed. In reality, two or three issues were the maximum any group lobbied on.
The window expanded like a soap bubble, transformed to a rainbow and opened. Rocketing out Jack did a controlled free fall to the lower avenues. Much of the exercise came from the body twists required to dodge reflectors, traffic tubes, weird jags in the architecture and the hundreds of banner poles. He saw no other flyers on the way down and he hit the ramp without a snag. The air wheels on his skates had perfect rebound, so now it felt like he had winged feet. A clean plate of blue sky showed overhead, an illusion created by the reflectors. Sun-gold streets were ahead. These weren't auto lanes, but there were a few people on rocket skis and scooters. Several clear blocks of foam glass buildings passed before he zoomed up to the crowds. The first picketers were studheads with manes of colored feathers, and they wanted the molecules they plugged into to be declared legal drugs. They were always around, blocking the streets with impromptu and rowdy concerts played by android bands. Jack knew that if he didn't blast over them swiftly they'd pace him on their rocket skis and harangue him like they did all members of the establishment.
Crossing the city, he found the protest scene vibrant; furry Teddybots were busy moving in here and there at scenes of police brutality to drive the officers back. After twenty minutes of wild riding, he floated down to his office window ledge. The glass recognized his reflection and opened. Today he knew he'd have to stay dressed in his Flash Gordon outfit, as he didn't have servant robots in his office. Ducking in he checked the desk screen, noting that his first client was in the waiting room. She was a foxy blond woman named Alisha Murphy, attended by two albino Teddybots.
A ring tone came from his prompter and he checked the message. It was a reminder from his lawyer on the new sexual harassment laws voted in. Legally, all he could do was sit tight and deadpan the clients. Gestures of any sort would be risky. Jack grimaced, but at his lawyer, not the laws. Of course, he didn't vote for sexual restrictions of any type, and he expected society to treat people like babies. But his lawyer had no excuse for treating him like a baby that needed prompting on everything. Jack had grown up sweet-talking his way past people who wanted to press charges of one sort or another. It was the only way when the laws changed by Lightning Vote. Early in life, he'd learned that the law was an ass with two faces.
Alisha entered and the pneumatic door whooshed shut. She walked with such natural pride she might’ve been an angel with freshly folded wings. Her eyes had a baited twinkle and he knew she was seeking ways to control him. No matter how she dressed her sexually provocative nature showed through, and she was one of those perverted people that get away with it because it seems natural. Sexual confusion had always been one of her problems and that made her similar to Jack. Her addiction was for shallow men who were easy to throw away. Jack read that as fear of deep emotional attachment. A problem he also shared. With Jack the problem was rooted in the fact that professionals weren't really allowed to have sex with anyone. On the other side of the coin, sexual relations were mandatory. You had sex with everyone, yet it was terribly illegal - the result being guilt, fear of discovery and disgrace, and bonding problems.
“I've been thinking about death,” Alisha said, her look obviously designed to shock.
“Hum,” Jack said, taking a cigarette from his purse. He snapped his lighter and instead of a flame, a hairy tentacle whipped out and broke the cigarette. He knew if he went by the book, he'd force her in for observation. “People are immortal, why would you want to think about death?”
“Call it fixation, and I mean real death - not that I would attempt suicide . . . not when they put you back together no matter how painful it is. You're a thinker, Jack. I bet you've thought about everything, even death?”
“I do think about everything, but for other people because they like to vote with their hearts and skip out on bothersome thinking. In normal life planning no one asks me to think about death. The ones that do are mad.”
“Maybe we’re all mad. I mean why do we believe in heaven without ever questioning it?”
“A natural understanding; the day comes when the marked are taken to heaven by the Priestbots.”
“Am I marked?”
“I don't know.” Jack thought of the fresh mark on his head. “No one knows what the mark is.”
“What about in the past,” Alisha said, “when people believed in the wonder of death? It was a genetic defect, I guess?”
“A social one,” Jack said. “People can be socialized to believe and behave in almost any fashion. But we operate by the truth. The Priestbots and heaven are a certainty.”
“This is such a headache, all this thinking. Let's get back to my therapy. Where were we? Ah yes, I was imagining what life would be like if I were a nurse.” Alisha paused then began unbuttoning her blouse. “We're in Fabulous Furry Hospital. I'm the nasty nurse and I've just caught you doing something dirty with your penile implant. Regulations say I must seize it. Will I disconnect it or not?”
Alisha was still playing the nasty nurse, slamming her hips from side to side as she left. Jack sprayed his mussed hair back into place with a groom gun and checked himself in the mirror. His fly was undone, and his face pinked as he suddenly feared discovery.
It was time to get a second opinion on that damn number, so he went out, down a corridor painted ballot blue and into Frank Gavin's office. Frank visibly jumped at the sight of someone entering; he was beside the open window blowing out a cloud of blue smoke. A Teddybot lay on the carpet by his desk, and it was out of commission with a letter opener planted deep in its forehead.
“Ah, smoking has been voted out again and you've surrendered to temptation,” Jack said, smiling.
Gavin's cheeks hollowed as he sucked on the cigarette. He was a big jolly man like a larger version of a Teddybot, only he was without fur. “You're going to inform, I suppose?” he said.
“No, I could use a butt myself,” Jack said, taking one of the dope sticks he thought were cigarettes from his purse. “What I'm here for is a second opinion. It's this mark on my head.”
As he strolled over, Jack parted his immortal hair and rubbed the mark clear. Interest lifted Gavin's face then he seemed to weird out as he took a step back.
“Stay right there, I know what to do,” Gavin said in a tone that was suddenly certain.
“Okay,” Jack said as Gavin walked over to the fallen Teddybot. Sparks showered as he pulled out the letter opener. Bizarre emotions showed on Gavin's twisting face. Saliva dripped on his fat lips and his gaze was upward and enraptured like that of an idiot visionary.
“Ah yes, heaven and bowls of polished fruit,” Gavin said, apparently addressing someone higher than Jack. “Extinguish me in the flaming bosom of your love O Mohammed. Let virgin breasts be the pillows of my soul . . .”
Jack took a cautious step back. Gavin was holding the letter opener like it was a holy dagger. Knowing that Gavin had never been a mystic poet Jack wondered why he was acting like one now.”
“Don't move, Jack,” he said, becoming suddenly stern. “You can't run from heaven. The Priestbots are all-seeing.”
Perhaps that was so. Jack didn't know, but he could run from Gavin, and as he charged with the letter opener, Jack simply stepped over and jumped out the window.
It was suicide, he wasn't wearing his rocket jacket or emergency balloon bag, and suicide had been voted out, which meant - Rescue. On a high ledge, a robot gargoyle shook off its verdigris, sprouted gossamer wing blades and jetted down, seizing Jack with griffin claws. It soared through the wind channels of the upper city and down to the lower streets.
Jack's thoughts rushed with the wind tearing at his hair transplant. He was marked for heaven and logic dictated that the religious beliefs of the society he lived in were a delusion. A bronze letter opener through the brain wasn't a heavenly idea, and Gavin's reaction to the numbers had been psychotic. He thought of the light fixture trying to strangle him, and it occurred to him that any other marked man would've died shaving, when the robot shaver slashed his throat. If it weren't for the fact he was a peculiar person he'd be dead.
A city park was below and the robot gargoyle released him, sending him for a tumble on soft artificial grass. No sooner had he gotten to his feet than Gavin blew in on a wind channel and landed beside him, hitting the sod so hard it rang like a drum. It was more than Gavin's prosthetic limbs and brain transplant could handle, and moments later, the robogoyle appeared and soared off to the reconstruction tubes with his broken body.
Teddybots were coming around a fountain that showered golden water so Jack ran off down a path of glass earth and into a library. Covering the mark on his head, he went down to a private chamber, took out his cream and smeared it over the number. A guard robot with a uniform of shining fur and two revolving heads of striped fuzz was approaching. No doubt he was in a reserved space. Ducking out he went to the fabulous newsroom and sat at the back.
To his amazement, his image was on the holo platform and it was slowly rotating. An evangelist with a hair transplant modeled after the burning bush appeared in the 4-D announcer's square. “Yes, it's a miracle,” the evangelist said in tones both awed and fiery. “Jack Morton's angel has returned to our Fabulous World and is at large in the city. Any citizens sighting him are to report to the nearest public church.”
A disguise was needed and he had to get out of the library. Taking advantage of screen flicker and a moment of darkness, he edged over to the door and went out. Browsing people were as thick as flies so he made an unauthorized entry into the antiquarian stacks and ran to a back fire door.
Bright sunlight blinded him and he was hesitant to step out. When he did, he found himself in a side alley. As he began to stride briskly away, an undercover Teddybot rolled out of the shadows and blocked him.
“Eye scan verified. You're being held in custody,” it said. “Violation of state referendum 100555.”
Jack thought fast. 100555 was the law making bisexual love mandatory, and he'd been hiding from his listed lovers. Now he'd be held until he could be stamped.
It was a tense wait while the Teddybot communicated with another bot, but there was some relief in the fact that the bots didn't seem to be aware of his new status as an angel. Perhaps only the citizens had been alerted so far. It was five minutes before the second cop Teddybot rolled up with a man in tow. “Maybe I can get this over with and get away,” Jack thought as he realized the bot had managed to find a volunteer. The volunteer was an obvious gay stud with a blond crew cut and a muscular build. Jack figured quick sex with him would mean a quick stamp and release.
Jack coughed and spat on the asphalt, risking a ticket. Something wasn't right because the blond guy was looking at him like he was the handsomest man on earth, when he knew he was the mainstream sort of guy muscular gays didn't go for. Ever efficient, the Teddybots rolled to guard positions while the volunteer moved in and embraced him. As was the law, a sexual relationship developed, with Jack skillfully pretending to be a responsive partner. Things progressed until he was against the wall with his partner mounting him from behind. Jack ground his teeth as his body rocked and he was forced to cooperate for the sake of comfort, thinking that when the populist state votes to screw you it really does the job.
Feeling somewhat annoyed he decided he would still escape the 666 version of heaven. Frowning at his volunteer lover, he zipped up his pants.
“Hey, don't blame me,” the big guy said. “Do you know how many women I have to suffer through?” He held up large hands. “I volunteered to do you because you're an angel.”
“Angel, angel,” the Teddybots repeated in unison, and then they shot out hairy tentacles to hold Jack again.
A solid wall of darkness towered over him, then bright lights flared and Jack saw heaven. He felt more like he was in hell. His temples rang in his ears like sheets of vibrating aluminum and he knew he'd been drugged. The room was white and a strait jacket that smelled like robot cleaning fluid confined him. A huge window lit up in front of him and at first, he could see nothing but a brain-stabbing glare beyond it.
His dry tongue choked him and he watched in misery as the glare became a blurred scene. It was a robo industrial complex; hulking machines, blocks and cylinders. Wheels whirred, and chains, gears and rollers created a rushing din … if it was heaven Teddybots had dreamed it up.
Just outside the window, a spotlight shone on an open circle and a Priestbot in vermilion robes of judgment was reading scripture from the preface of a huge leather-bound Record of the Vote. Ermine trim framed a hairy face that was nasty rather than cute like the Teddybots.
The din increased in volume and at its heart was a sound like thundering pistons that died down as an assembly line began to move. A powdered white face appeared; it was a man in a strait jacket and he was held by huge clamps. More followed on the assembly line, all of them conscious, with shaved heads, bright eyes, and enraptured facial expressions.
Caterpillar-like, the line eased forward, carrying the people toward its end at the Priestbot and the light. The window hummed in its frame as the machinery halted with the first man placed in the holy circle. After reverently setting the book on a brass altar, the Priestbot fell to his knees in prayer. He'd hardly begun when there was a sudden ringing. Cha-ching and a huge metal cylinder swung over and knocked the happy man's head off. Blood and splintered bone blossomed and spilled like strawberry pulp in front of the Priestbot, and blood was still showering as the line jolted forward with a clank. A second person was moved up as the headless body of the first was carried under the floor.
Although it was a revolting and traumatic sight, it was the absurdity of it that vaporized the residue of Jack's religious beliefs. All of his life he'd believed in the Priestbots and heaven, and the reality of it was Cha-ching, Cha-ching - whomp, whomp, whomp - doom, doom, doom. All of it totally meaningless cruelty that people must have at one time or another voted into existence so future generations would have happy lives of fake immortality and then be put to death. It was too much; he couldn't cope with the reality of death and the loss of immortality. Vomit rose and he blacked out.
Lifted from a gentle cloud of sleep he saw a flow of bubbles. Soft and metallic blue they brushed his cheeks and filled his ears with the glissading of harps. Through his fluttering lids, he saw a man spraying him with a gas gun - an evangelist with a wizened face, flowing silver beard and robe of many colors. Getting up, Jack noted that he was now wearing linen robes and smelled of spices and perfume. The building was a tele-cathedral and he could see a vault and Gothic arches above him.
Jack felt positively enlightened or negatively enlightened - it depended on the charge of the gun. He smiled as the evangelist turned off the flow. “Say, you're Moses Daniel of the Public Church, aren't you? I thought I was in the hands of the Priestbots.”
“You were found after the heavenly mark faded, so the Priestbots have declared you an angel. The tele-board awaits your divine message.”
Jack stood up, feeling unnaturally light in the linen and tinted light beaming in through stained-glass windows. Beyond Moses, the board members were seated at an ornate table set beneath a giant trompe l'oeil cross. Since a heated theological debate was underway, Moses and Jack walked almost unnoticed to the table.
“Ah hear the voice of the Lord sayin’ Jack is no angel,” said a jowly evangelist with a Southern accent.
“It's blasphemy!” yelled a flame-haired prophet as he pounded his fist on the table. “Our predecessors, the Ten Populist Evangelists, are rolling over on their divine clouds. This man is here to alter the Ten Heavenly Laws and destroy the religious sanctity of the state.”
Moses looked to Brother Judas. “Could he do that?”
Brother Judas cleared his throat. “All laws are transitory, changing by the vote of the people. Except for the Heavenly Laws. Thanks to the foresight of our predecessors, they can't be altered. For my part, I intend to assist our new angel, to help him avoid theological errors that would cause the Priestbots to dispatch him quickly back to heaven.”
There was much confusion. Moses put up a firm hand. “There will be no more speculation. Let's allow our angel to deliver his message to our all-seeing helpers, the Priestbots.”
All heads turned to Jack, and he was thinking furiously. He could see that the all-seeing Priestbots were represented at the table by a camera mounted in front of an empty chair. So far, he'd gathered that the Priestbots were androids that made sure the religious laws never changed. He knew there was a way. “As the Lord has commanded,” Jack said quietly and reverently. “I have returned as an angel. A humble lifeplanner, I am chosen of God to be a world planner. This is to be done through Heavenly Law Number Five, which guarantees freedom of religion. I will begin by building a new church and a new gospel for ….”
Judas gasped and interjected. “The Priestbots cannot allow this. I move that our angel be returned to heaven.”
There was much trumpeting and the Inauguration Day Parade came on as it did every day, but the citizens of Fabulous Furry World knew something different was in the air. They knew an angel was said to be on earth when none had come before.
“And now a message from our president, our angel, Jack Morton,” said the unseen announcer, and Jack appeared, looking fabulous in sunshine and his new cloud-of-heaven hair transplant.
“Citizens, this is a day of great celebration, as every day is a day of great celebration. Today the trumpets are louder because I have sent the Priestbots and our glorious tele-evangelists to heaven. At this moment, they are safe and saved at the feet of the Lord. Of course there is much to vote on now that I am angel president for life, and . . . .”
Here comes the Sun
© By Gary L Morton
Flakes couldn’t clean the grime from his window with the palm of his hand, so after a moment of intense thought he pulled out a flowered handkerchief and rubbed a buttery circle on the pane. Circles were lucky, and this one was perfect - it had magic. He stood still and admired it, then drove his fist through it. Glass tinkled to the gravel chips below, healthy blood welled in the tiny gashes in his knuckles. He grinned at the rolling summer day, his hair lifting in the breeze spilling in through the hole.
Cloying odors from a sugar factory carried in the lakefront air. His back yard was a large vacant lot. The skyscrapers of downtown Toronto and the CN Tower showed like monuments at its end. Flakes loved the tower, one of the largest in the world. Some people said it was perverse. Old Sally called it a materialist god. For Flakes, it was some engineer’s way of giving God the finger. He lifted his own finger, and he felt solid, being there with the tower, saying “Up yours God.”
Weed islands, abandoned autos and junk heaps made the lot almost a dump. Yet it was the sort of homey back yard Flakes preferred; a cabbage patch that could fill his every need. Everything, even bottles of booze appeared there; the lot was good for a half bottle of sherry when he needed some for a special occasion. They came from the sun, the bottles. If there was one thing that bothered Flakes it was the way the sun was always spilling broken glass everywhere. Of course the sun put out other junk as well, especially candy and gum wrappers. The sun loved fluttery things like wrappers. Flakes knew of no one else with the power to catch the sun at work. He'd catch it now and again, working furtively at the corners of his vision.
All was aglitter in the lot, then a dark cloud turned Flakes’ mind to nebulous thoughts. It wasn’t a cloud exactly; it was really the figure of Sally appearing on the far side of the lot. Sally's limp and weird mixture of overlarge clothes were unmistakable. If Sally were to stand still on a mound he'd make a fine scarecrow. Only Flakes saw him as a sinister scarecrow and a bad omen. Sally was threatening to put complaints in against him. Tuesday Sally had put a complaint in against Aunt Jane, about her raving. It wasn't a fair grievance since it involved Aunt Jane's handicap, or talent, depending on how you looked at it. She'd take to flailing her arms and going on like a drugged bard. Long involved raving about dragon flight, princesses and Lord Ulrich's singing sword. On the record, Sally had accused Aunt Jane of telling loud stories after lights out; telling them to evil beings in the lot. And it was an outright lie. There were no evil beings in the lot at night; there was only an angel with a crippled wing, who watched over the drunks.
Sally moved across the lot like an old three-legged dog, dodging here and there where a flash of light might be a returnable bottle or can. He didn't have his cart so Flakes knew he'd just made a cash-in. Sally supported himself by roaming the garbage-day neighborhoods, using his years of experience in his selection of salable junk. He was one of the few co-op members who paid rent, although he didn't have a real job like Flakes, who worked in plumbing eleven days a month. Flakes felt that Sally lacked proper pride. While Flakes would show his rent stub around and boast, Sally would side with the misfits and say that rent was for those with the means to pay. He'd shake the wheat-yellow yarn he had for hair, tip his neon-green baseball cap, and with eyes as fat as boiled eggs say, “Housing is a human right. Supposed to be our agreement with the United Nations that guarantees it. That's why the government sent over fat Joe Steiner to help make this old warehouse into a co-op for the homeless.”
It was certainly true that everyone was proud of River Road Co-op - spelled RIVER ROAD COOP on the sign - and if fat Joe Steiner had been red-faced on the days he brought people through for a tour it had been forgivable. Flakes had never lived in a better place, and there were toilets coming in next month - real toilets! If they didn't get canceled. The problem being that the old government had been voted out of office and now instead of jolly Joe Steiner coming by, they had a new red-neck welfare minister touring through – and red in the face because he wanted to demonstrate how welfare money was being squandered and that was hard to do in a building with no toilets and people so obviously unemployable. Sally said it was all a diabolical plan. They intended to cut all social benefits, yet still run up a debt, so that the citizens would keep paying high taxes. Down the road, one hundred percent of every tax dollar would be paid as interest to international moneylenders. People would be paupers; government would be shut down, except for the tax department. Sally called it the trickle-up bankster conspiracy.
The thing about Sally was that after talking-up rights he'd get to complaining and trying to form committees to kick people out. Sally was a born committee man; he'd take charge with that dumb-horse serious look of his and have Jackie, Moons, King Kasbah and the others believing every silly thing he said.
At the halfway point of the lot, Sally stopped to pluck a loose spring out of the bent-up frame of some long dead machine. Golden beams were fanning down from the sun and in them Flakes could see the future. The faces of the co-op members twisted and deceived as Sally led them against him. It would happen; it always happened that way. Men of Sally's breed spun silver tongues and turned close friends into whisperers and back stabbers.
Blood began to rise, his head lightened and he saw gossamer membranes pulsing in the air. Trembling hit his fingers and there was a taste of bile. He knew he'd never be able to rest while the problem had him agitated. The insecurity had to end; only there wasn't much he could do if Sally was determined to get him. Deciding on a showdown, he grabbed the length of pipe he kept under the counter and marched out the door to the stairs.
A few weeks back, the city had sent truckloads of rock chip over from a demolished building and Sally and Flakes had worked together raking out a parking lot. That friendliness had vanished and now the gravel drew a line between them. Sally stepped up close, waving the spring ridiculously, already cursing about the broken window.
“Yeah, I busted my window,” Flakes said. “I needed air and it was rotted shut.”
Sally raised his child-scolding finger. “You can't break nothin’ without the assessment and approval of the Reconstruction Committee.”
“But I'm the captain of that committee.”
“Okay captain Flakes, tonight you can answer to the Fairness Committee.”
“A little committee we formed yesterday. You weren't invited. Those members that have been disrupting the quality of other people's lives weren't invited. New Fairness rules have been established. If you don't follow them you'll be out on your ass.”
The ground rumbled though there wasn’t a subway underneath. Flakes looked down and saw his legs rubbering. A hot lick of acid shot up from his belly and his bum liver developed an ache, then his kidneys opted for temporary failure and released a splash of urine. Heat showed on his face like a hot clay mask, and a red explosion of veins and clamminess crawled over him like a molester. He could smell the sun and it was like a meltdown at the city dump. Sally seemed pleased by the effect of his words and he took out a flowery handkerchief and blew his raspberry nose. The blow didn't disturb Flakes. What disturbed him was the sunlight leaking out of Sally's ears. It was gold light and he could see what had happened - too much time spent in the junkyard sun. Sally was possessed, filled with sun-bright pools of wickedness and smart-ass fairness.
With numbness and squirming working in his innards, Flakes swung the pipe. It connected and Sally's head rang like a bell. Bronze sunlight spilled out, so much sunlight that it flew as blinding liquid into the air. Dents appeared in the pink, plastic, doll-like flesh as more blows rained over Sally's body. Then cracks began to open. Fuchsia blooms and bluish buds of blood appeared in the wounds at first, and were followed by bits of glass, foil, sand and springs that spattered and flew. Many tiny cogs were inside and when his skull cracked open, it was full of sherry. The battering carried him to the ground, where he twitched violently before falling limp and blue.
The slurred roar of a drunk broke the silence and Flakes turned. It was Moons; he'd been passed out on an old mattress. Flakes knew he wouldn't get away now and he hoped that Moons had seen it – he’d killed Sally, but Sally hadn’t been human. The sun had fashioned Sally out of beam-ends and junk.
The CN Tower spiked a sky of gloom, beams strobing down from its Cyclopean eye; from their position in the lot, it was the god of rusty railroad tracks. Tracks that might’ve been made of silver, so high was the value of the land around the materialist god. Preacher Bob was a man of the spirit; he turned the people around so they were facing away from the tower and looking past Sally's grave at their home - River Road Co-op. The members of the Fairness Committee were present. Also at the forefront was the knowledge that Sally's death was being kept secret for the good of the co-op. It was their home, their only home, and any negative news reports would draw the attention of the new government; a government looking for any excuse to cut projects and money from the poor.
Flakes had his hands in his back pockets. He stared at the dirt with a face of sad leather. King Kasbah stood guard, his red-feathered head held high, proud, and in stark contrast with Moons' drooling and weeping. Jackie, Aunt Jane, Cinder Eddie, all of the others were solemn-faced, staring at the white cross Preacher Bob had painted on the rusted-out truck that marked Sally's grave.
Sally had been planted underground in a roomy coffin made of crate boards. Roomy because Jackie believed the spirit wouldn't wander if it had plenty of space. Flakes was feeling bad, and it was because the others said he was nuts. He took the odd glance at Preacher Bob's doorknob nose as he ran through the eulogy, but he couldn't shed tears for Sally. Sally had been a junk man, and so what if he was sleeping the sleep of rust.
“From ashes to ashes and rust to rust,” Preacher Bob said as he addressed the mourners “. . . and yay, though he walked through the shadow of the valley of death, the comforting waters of Babylon have stilled him. We cast his head upon the waters, praying that it will return many times again. Thy rod and thy staff have thrashed him to death, and the night of his roaring has sobered in the mourning dew. Open thy bosom and pour out skies of sackcloth and ashes, take him unto you in peace, earth and heaven.”
A group prayer ended the service and a chunk of stratus cloud drifted darkly over the grave to certify the burial. It was now time to deal with Flakes. King Kasbah was the first to speak. “What do I do with the prisoner?” he asked.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for an eye,” Preacher Bob said, a gust of wind billowing in his shabby suit, adding authority to his words.
“You mean we pull his teeth and put out his eyes?” Moons said.
Cinder Eddie raised a wrinkled hand and looked up, giving the impression he was about to speak hypocritically to a being in the sky. “As his lawyer, I demand my client get a hearing.”
“He'll have a hearing,” Aunt Jane said. “It's his eyes were putting out.”
“He's right,” Preacher Bob said. “We'll call a hearing of the Fairness Committee and decide on punishment. Get a chair, King, and tie him down. We'll incarcinerate him for the present.”
King Kasbah strolled over to the burial heap and was about to disturb it to remove a chair when Preacher Bob ran up and swatted him across the back of his head with the Bible. Taking King by the hand, the preacher led him over to another rubbish heap. Sinewy black arms flashed in the grayness as he dug out a bleached chair. Flakes offered no resistance, passively letting King bind him to the chair with hemp string and plastic garbage banding. A small plane buzzed over from the island airport, trailing a banner through the gloom as the procession moved out of the lot. They headed for the co-op warehouse with Flakes and his chair held up high. He might've been the monarch of some tropical island, or more accurately, someone about to be slain at the feet of an idol on some tropical island.
Flakes didn’t attend his hearing. He was kept bound and placed by the window in a dark room on the upper floor of the warehouse. Beyond the cracked glass he saw another vacant lot; one that was becoming a pit. A truck run followed a semicircle through it and there were big portcullis gates for entrance and exit. Monster rigs would enter and get filled by the loader and sealed. Men wearing white protective suits were waiting on the exit scaffolding to spray the trucks down with decontamination powder they had in beetle-green tanks. As the trucks entered and left in purgatory clockwork, a strange understanding gathered in Flakes' mind. Preacher Bob had ordered this whole operation. He’d commanded the sun to contaminate the soil in the lot, and brought in the rigs and earth rippers to dig a pit - a pit to hell! The Fairness Committee was waiting to throw him down and seal him in the brimstone. Flakes' whole body shook, and he heard laughter - the laughter of the sun.
Time took shape as creeping numbness, and Flakes wasn't sure if it was twilight or rain falling outside. The door creaked open and light, cobwebs and Moons' death-tinted face rushed into vision. Some of the others followed him in, including Flakes' lawyer, Cinder Eddie.
King Kasbah removed Flakes' gag and turned to Preacher Bob.
Preacher Bob's eyes were shark cold and beady. “A sentence acceptable to the Lord has been passed. Prosecutor, read the details.”
Cinder Eddie stepped forward and popped on glasses as thick as ice cubes. The sentence was written in green marker on the back of a Pizza Prince flyer. “You are to be punished corporally with the said punishment device obtained from Aunt Jane. Namely, a Nova stun gun that she purchased from the Spytech store on Yonge Street. You shall be electrocuted until you are not dead and then set out in the back lot and tormented by the demons of night and conscience. Have you any last words or confessions?”
“I thought Cinder Eddie was my lawyer?” Flakes mumbled.
“He is,” Preacher Bob said. “And since he's also the prosecutor, he got you a lighter sentence.”
It didn't seem right that Cinder Eddie should be both his lawyer and the prosecutor. A flush of anger rose and seemed to fly straight away in a heat wave, leaving his cheeks dead meat. He chewed on a dry lump of tongue and contemplated the sentence. His crotch felt like a heap of wet dishrags. Other than that, he could feel nothing. It was the right moment for punishment. He'd have to fake it, not just because he was numb, but because what Aunt Jane thought was an electric gun was probably a lawn ornament. The idea of setting him out back to be tormented by demons was ridiculous when there were no demons after sundown. No doubt the preacher was the sort of holy man who could see devils but not angels.
“I have no last words,” Flakes said, “but I want a jug of Gatorade before punishment begins commencing.”
“Very well,” said Preacher Bob.
As it turned out, Cinder Eddie had also been voted executioner of the sentence. He stood by with the said punishment device cradled in nicotine-stained hands. Flakes washed the Gatorade back slowly, making sure to dart his eyes fearfully. He certainly wasn't afraid of the stun gun, which looked like a hair dryer that’d accidentally been struck by a brick thrown from the top of the CN Tower. For a final touch, Flakes bit his lip, kicked up his feet and begged for mercy. King merely frowned as he took the empty jug from him.
Then Flakes was touched between the eyes with 60,000 volts of stun electricity. A King Kong sucker punch. No hole had to be excavated for him as he was driven straight through the earth into Hades - where he was suddenly on fire with pins and needles. His nerve ends crackled like sparklers and a wailing wall of flame encircled and engulfed him.
Flakes saw mostly billowing smoke as he shot out of the lake of fire and back into the dingy room. A demon eye became a naked light bulb, and then all went cold. His scorched bones were now fleshed with an enormous sensitive bruise, and like another bruise, Cinder Eddie's face appeared. He was approaching with the stun gun and was about to plant it down between -
The crushed thing lolling on the road was him, and in spite of the veins throbbing in his eyes he could see a hammer foot pounding down from the sun, grinding him into hot blood-sticky asphalt. He couldn't quite remember how he'd fried his brain, but it now seemed to slosh in his skull like a boiled cabbage. His fat tongue slipped in his throat and he fell into silvery darkness.
And awoke in the silver of moonlight. He was still bound in the chair, and the stun gun was in his lap. Seeing that his body wasn't crushed gave him some relief, like coming out of a bad dream, but it was temporary because his nerve centers reported extreme pain. The reports from the area of his navel spoke of a small chewing creature with a probing tongue. Other messages from his legs and testicles told him that a very hateful person was somewhere driving knitting needles through his likeness. He replied by falling into a spell of moaning, punctuated by weird cries.
Demons of night tormented him as had been predicted, then sunrise pinked the horizon with a veil of slightly bruised tissue. Waves of golden light spilled onto the lot. Pain as sharp as slivers of ice formed in his chest, and his face lifted. Mad hope shone in his rheumy eyes. Maybe his angel had come. But his hope turned to terror when he saw that it was the sun.
Vibrating like an ancient gong, the sun continued to rise. Flakes had to shake his head to stop the light from pouring into his brain. Pools of light were in his eyes. He could see bright fragments shooting over Sally's tomb, then the heap tumbled and a figure stepped out of the wrecks. A sunbeam kissed the man’s face with glittering gold and he saw that it was Sally. His cloak was brilliant and it flowed to a train of litter, cans and wrappers. Teeth of broken glass showed on a face of hardened clay and blood. One eye was a black marble, the other a spring, and the front of his hair was braided with bits of foil and candy. Whitened bird skulls hung from his ears. Stripes of blue-black scar tissue composed his cheeks. A necklace of rodent tails decorated his chest hair and red mud had been kneaded into his hair at the crown.
Flakes tried but he couldn't shake the vision. Sally kept coming like a bizarre priest of the sun god. When Flakes screamed, a sunbeam emerged and burned his throat. His whole being had become light; beams spiraling up into the corona of the sun.
Later in the morning, the residents of River Road Co-op emerged to collect Flakes. Red feathers were in the lead as King Kasbah led the people through the gravel. He saw Flakes slumped in the chair and assumed it was only a matter of carrying him inside for first aid. Then, as they drew closer, they saw that Flakes was green and swollen. He was as dead as dead could be.
“Oh-no! He's dead!” King said, bringing the crowd to a halt.
Immediately Moons cut over into the lot and faced Flakes straight on. He choked, the big whites of his eyes rolling as he stumbled back. There was a gouge in Flakes' chest, rimmed by a crust of gore, purpling spleen, and lung tissue. Resting in the gouge like a junk heart was Aunt Jane's stun gun.
“He - he's been murdered,” Moons stuttered.
Preacher Bob hurried forward, and to everyone's amazement, checked Flakes' pulse. He was just in time to hear an electric whir. Flakes' stunning new heart had started and his eyes fluttered open, showing only blood and whites. Then his fingers curled around a pipe as he began to rise. The preacher threw up his arms and shouted blessings to the sun and the CN Tower, blessings the other residents of River Road Co-op heard as they fled in terror.
Long John Silver's Ghost Machine
© By Gary L Morton
Snow flurries swirled in the wind, dusting the neighborhood. Brian crossed the yard to the mailbox, spongy sod lightening his step. He frowned, the glare of the rising sun blinding him as he pulled out a letter. Shoving it in his pocket, he headed around back, thinking how unemployment could make the days ugly. He felt too depressed to read the letter. It would likely be another rejection of some sort.
Slamming the back door, Brian thumped down to his workshop and brought his network up out of hibernation mode. While the machine booted he studied the assortment of parts on the worktable -- enough to put together a couple quick systems. He'd probably make a few hundred bucks out of the small sale. God he hated capitalism. Working for the government had been so much better. Unfortunately, there were disadvantages that came with being laid off from a civil service job. The first disadvantage being that private sector firms didn’t want a government software man. Bureaucrats had liked Brian's work, but private sector managers always frowned when he mentioned that his greatest achievement had been the development of new search software for The Department of Northern Purchasing. Search software in the sense that it searched for ways to spend money and lighten the burden of management decisions. Being all-inclusive, it found a target and then put together a report from templates that would justify the expenditure. It was also cost effective in that it eliminated the need for consultants and staff to produce the report.
One full year of unemployment; Janet and Becky, his daughters were grown up -- lucky thing. He still had Mary to worry about. She sure wouldn't like growing old in a seedy apartment house and that was likely where she'd end up now that he'd cashed in their retirement savings. He’d have to get something soon or it would be the mean streets instead of the suburban high life. His systems and software sales were really just an underground business that couldn't work in the long run. Brian had to work like a thief and most of the people he sold to were thieves. He couldn't post his address on the social networks he used or they'd simply break into his house and steal the goods. If the government caught up with him, he'd really be in trouble. His department had been next to a branch of the federal revenue agency, and he knew what happened to people caught running a home business without paying taxes.
Desperation won out in the end and he paused to open the letter; if he had one chance in a million he didn't want to blow it. As a person, he was likable, and that was his chance. In interviews, he poured out the charm. Luckily, he had never developed the Attitude, that nasty disposition that belonged to many people in the civil service. Embossed silver flashed in his eyes and he snapped the page up, knowing it was one of the minister's letterheads. He read it quickly then bit his lip. The news was that the civil service union had gone on strike yesterday and the government was recalling him as a replacement worker -- a scab.
Damn -- scab, he thought. And he was just desperate enough to consider it. Still, it wouldn't work out. The union would get some kind of deal in the end and make sure the scabs were out. He decided to e-mail the union prez. If he informed first they might out someone who wouldn't picket and put his name on the return list. About 10 percent of the workers were fanatical union types, the rest would simply bet on a winner, many of them crossing lines to get a cheque. It meant he was sure to get back in when the union settled.
A click of the mouse and his e-mail program came up. A new letter sat in his box so he checked it out. Two files were with it - a form and a movie file. He clicked the movie file and the minister's face appeared on the screen. Perfect silver hair, the wrinkles and hook in his chin ironed out . . . Brian grinned wryly, thinking that old John Silver was far too vain to do real appearances that might reveal him as less than perfect. “Good to see you again, Brian,” Mr. Silver said. “The bad news as you know is that OPSEFU is on strike, and the good news is that your status has now changed from that of replacement worker to full-time Systems Control Officer. You will report to work immediately at gate seven of the new building, which is really the old Department of Purchasing Warehouse at 78 Scarsdale Street. This assignment is top secret; you are not to inform the union. I repeat, you are not to inform the union.”
Suddenly the screen went blank and a form appeared with the message -- Click yes to accept or more info for further details. Brian clicked more info and another page popped up -- It has come to our attention that you are running a network and laptop sales business without reporting to the Canada Revenue Agency for tax purposes. Click yes to arrange an audit of your affairs or go back to accept your new position as Systems Control Officer.
Brian clicked go back and a You-are-now-on-the-payroll message appeared, followed by a new movie clip of the minister. Standing on a platform, John Silver blasted into space toward a new government office building on an asteroid. Beethoven began to play and Brian hit the escape key only to find he couldn't escape. “Damn,” he muttered, “another one of those self-glorifying multimedia presentations you can't escape from.” Pushing his chair back, he tapped out a manual override script built into his operating system and the machine powered down and rebooted.
Crossing picket lines to get back to work wasn't something he planned on doing. He decided to check the union's web page to see if there was information on the location of today's pickets. As he hit the connect button a you-have-received-new-mail message appeared. He opened the box and found his letter from the government deleted and a new one from the union listed. It also had a movie file and when he clicked a fist graphic punched through the screen. Brian ducked back as the word STRIKE in 3D replaced the fist graphic.
BROTHER BRIAN, YOU ARE TO REPORT FOR PICKET DUTY. YOU WILL BE ON CITY WIDE ROTATION WITH THE MEAT INSPECTORS.
News Flash: Scabs have crossed the lines at Bay and College. All unemployed members are being called to the lines to prevent further breaches.
This was definitely trouble. He couldn't travel on picket with the meat inspectors and return to work simultaneously. What to do? He stared into space, and then noticed the letter suddenly self-delete. “What's going on here?” he muttered. Switching to secure mail office, he hit the chat button. A blurry photo of a postal carrier trudging through snow appeared in the background. “I want some answers,” he typed. “Why are management and union people getting special access to read and delete stuff from my mailbox?”
“They aren't getting it from us,” was the reply. “We wouldn't give out the login.”
“What if someone offered to pay for it?”
“If they did we'd phone the police.”
“You're certain no one can read my mail?”
“Yes, that is except intelligence organizations like the FBI, the RCMP and so on. There are certain key words -- for example, let's say a couple key words are sex and child. If those words appear in a letter you post, then the contents of your mailbox will be copied and sent to the International Police and every intelligence organization in the world.”
“Yeah, well how about the key words strike or scab? You bunch of . . . .”
Exiting the chat mode, Brian went to his scan page to see if any other items were missing. None were, but as he watched several invitations to business network chats suddenly disappeared. “Huh,” he muttered, and then he reached over and pulled the plug.
He'd deal with it later. Right now, he had to go to work. His plan was to drive by the Department of Purchasing Warehouse and see if there were pickets there. Dashing up the stairs, he burst out into the light, ran around the hedge and then froze. The meat inspectors' strike convoy was parked out front. A large sign that said DIE SCAB! was stuck in the front lawn with a huge photo of his face pasted to the board. Two burly inspectors were carrying a side of beef down from the back of a freezer truck. SCAB was painted on the beef in red. When the meat was down another inspector walked up and this one had taped hands and wore a rubber gorilla mask. As his assistants held the beef, the gorilla inspector began to pound it with his taped hands. “SCAB, SCAB,” the other inspectors chanted.
“Yikes, I've been caught,” Brian thought.
The inspector pulled off his mask and grinned widely as he walked over. It was Jim Donner, an old pal from the programming department. He clapped Brian on the shoulder. “Are you with us old buddy?” he said.
“Sure,” Brian said. “But why are you dressed as a meat inspector and doing this stuff?”
“I am a meat inspector now. Six months after the layoff from programming I managed to bump in.”
“This is dangerous. We'll be arrested. We can't beat up scabs.”
“We won't beat anybody up. We’ll just scare the hell out of them. See how fast we did it. We had your photo on a board and got here as soon as we heard you were on the scab list.”
“How exactly did you get hold of the list?”
“We paid the mailman on the computer network for a copy of the latest government mailing list. Then we bought logins, you name it of everyone in the union. But don't worry old boy. We knew a good soldier like you wouldn't return to work so we came over to get you and find out the details.”
“The details are that the minister, John Silver, notified me. He wants me to return to work in a new computer position at the Northern Purchasing Warehouse.”
“Can't be. John Silver has been dead for three months. Donald Alder is the minister now. The Northern Purchasing Warehouse was closed long ago. That's that crazy haunted warehouse. No one wanted to work in there. It was in the news, remember?”
”I didn't know Mr. Silver died. I guess government ministers aren't really newsmakers.”
”Silver made news. You're forgetting that computer boondoggle of his, and the missing money.”
”I was laid off before all the news came out. What was it about?”
“About! Old Long John Silver's treasure is what it's still about. He managed to get a billion dollars of government money allocated to upgrading some kind of super computer that never existed. It was never built. They were grilling him at the inquiry, trying to find out where he stashed the booty. He died of a heart attack before he could talk. Man, being called in by John Silver is like a dream. These are the days of Hatchet Hardin’s cuts. Imagine the big money contract we would've got negotiating with Long John Silver.”
“Yeah, I know. I remember the Conservatives fuming about him in the legislature. Hatchet Hardin claimed Silver was the biggest spending government bureaucrat in the history of the world.”
“Silver wasn't into cutbacks, that's for sure.”
“We have to find out what's behind this. How about driving me over to Northern Purchasing so I can take a look around?”
“Good idea. If they’re taking in scabs there we're going to send you in as an inside man and give you the word when we want something sabotaged.”
Brian popped in the passenger side of the freezer truck and the convoy moved off in the uncommonly mild March weather. They took a swing downtown, honking support at the pickets walking the Toronto Block then headed toward the suburbs and the Northern Purchasing Warehouse. Jim's driving was aggressive if slow. He simply cut off anyone in his way and muscled past drivers who wanted to honk and curse.
Brian shook his fist at more than a few loudmouths, starting to feel tough like in the old union days. “Guess the public hates us in this strike,” he said. “You gotta hand it to the Hardin government. Only the devil could do a better job of exploiting the armchair hate and misery of the public.”
“You got it,” Jim said. “Hatchet Hardin and his rednecks exploited anger with their phony tax revolt. After that, he boosted himself in popularity by going hard on the growing army of people on welfare. Now it's the civil service. He appeals to the bad side of people. It's all just hate. They think they can dump us in the garbage like in a corporate merger, but this is society pal - people don't go away, they come back burdened with poverty and anger.”
“Yeah, but there isn't any money. They gave it all to the bankers and the rich. Now it's all debt.”
“You can't raise money by shutting everything down. Only workers create wealth and pay off debt.”
The quiet air of the suburbs washed over the convoy and Brian spotted more pickets out front of a warehouse. “It's one of our inspection buildings,” Jim said. “I want to take a quick cruise around back.”
The freezer truck entered the alley. A couple of burly guys in denim and cowboy boots were smoking down by a vault-like loading dock. Jim hit the gas, barreling right for them. Their cigarettes fell from their mouths; they didn't have time to jump up on the dock so they took off down the alley. Once the dock was blocked, Jim braked, grabbed a baseball bat from the back seat and jumped out. The scabs stopped running and turned to confront him. These were healthy men like body builders, maybe from a professional strikebreaking outfit. But it didn't faze Jim -- red in the face and sixty pounds overweight, he jogged up to them. The first guy tried to stop him with a karate kick and got his leg broken by a swing of the bat, and then the second scab took one body blow before he turned and ran like hell.
Jim stumbled back to the truck and jumped to the running board. He hung there on the door, needles of light in his pained eyes, a bitter expression on his meaty face. “Shit, it's my heart,” he said. “Get behind the wheel, back out of here. I'll hold on.”
“Jeeze,” Brian said as he moved behind the wheel. “You can't do this stuff Jim. You're a civil servant not superman. You'll die before you're even arrested.”
Jim wheezed, hanging weakly onto the rattling truck. “I don't care. I'll kill the bastards. There's 20 percent real unemployment out there. I'm no porker who just goes in for the slaughter. No scabs are going to take our jobs.”
Stopping at the front, Brian helped Jim in the passenger door and the convoy was off again, rolling north past hateful suburban eyes toward the warehouse. They passed another strike scene, honking at pickets who were enjoying a hot lunch supplied by some organizers from the steel workers. The warehouse came into view as they crossed the bridge over the expressway. It was huge and its location between a large hydro station and shopping mall made it look much more important than it was -- like maybe the headquarters of a high tech corporation. Only a big-spending government bureaucrat like Long John Silver could afford to build such an expensive warehouse.
Jim looked up, studying a monstrous metal gable. “Turn right by those factories. We'll walk over. If anybody's there we want to catch them by surprise.”
The convoy wagon-trained in a paint factory back parking lot and the crew got out. They lit cigarettes; some small talk began, the burly men looking at home in the industrial background. A minute passed then Jim gave the signal and they assembled. “All right boys. Brian goes to the front to see if he can get in and we scout the outside of the building. Brian, you're to go in and register as a scab then take a smoke break so you can let us know the score. We'll decide where to go from there. It's supposed to be a haunted warehouse, whatever that means, so any scabs we catch are gonna get spooked.”
Brian crossed the road feeling torn between the two sides. The idea of a new job as Systems Control Officer was appealing while the idea of brawling with the meat boys' brigade wasn't. He was a little too old; union strike stuff suited younger men. Damn world changed so fast now that any organizations that tried to put down roots like unions got bulldozed by progress. Studying the building, he found that it didn't look haunted from the outside. It seemed quite new though it was at least ten years old. The front extension was a security setup with a built-in guard post. A shadow moved behind the Plexiglas then vanished as Brian hit the button. No one showed so he hit it a few more times. Another thirty-second wait then he heard John Silver's voice come over the intercom. “Is that you Brian?”
“Yes, it's me. Reporting for work.”
“Good. Come in and sit in the waiting room. We have a power drain situation so I'll be tied up for about twenty minutes.”
The lock clicked open; Brian went in through the hall to the waiting room. The receptionist's window was empty and so was the desk. He looked around. Thick dust covered the chairs. Picking up a magazine, he knocked the dust off and found it to be an ancient copy of HOCKEY WEEK. A shadow moved in the receptionist's office then a door creaked. He went to the window and saw a patch of gray go out the door. Not a person or even a ghost, just a patch of gray. “Jeeze, maybe this joint is haunted,” he muttered, and then he felt his hair stand up and his skin crawl. His wrist touched the door handle and he got a sudden wicked shock. It wasn't purely fright, the place was screaming with static electricity.
A loud hum filled his ears and it seemed to grow louder as he waited. Other than it, there were no other sounds. After a minute, Brian realized the hum was noise from transformers in the hydro station next door. What was Silver talking about, a power drain situation? How much power could a warehouse with filing servers be using?
Tension knotted his muscles as he paced the room. It was like being a fish in a tank in the middle of unknown surroundings. He didn’t have the patience to wait so he opened the door and took a peak. The door didn't lead into the offices as he expected, but into a large section of the warehouse itself. And this section appeared to be older; Silver had built the new warehouse over and around a preserved historic structure. He stepped in, rather amazed as he looked about, remembering that he'd been instructed to enter at gate 7, wherever that was. Warehouses had been like this back before filing computers came into fashion. Unordered junk heaps where only a few employees could find anything. This one was a real mess . . . dust and hammock-big cobwebs everywhere. Smoky sunbeams from a high window shone on a mountain of IBM typewriters. They were the really old kind of government typewriters and heavy as tanks. Machines that should have been recycled decades ago, but instead they’d been collected and placed in the warehouse. If the mountain came down it would be deadly, but it didn't -- it just stood there like absurd junk art, spotlighted by the sun.
Passing the typewriters he came to another mountain . . . this one composed of old adding machine rolls, crushed envelope boxes, piles of spent erasers and other stationery supplies. It was heaped against the wall, the blanket of dust on it so thick it appeared to be crawling. At its side faint light shone in a dusty window. A shadow moved beside the sill so he walked up, picked up a piece of chock board cloth, shook it clean and wiped the pane. A meat inspector lurked at the side of the building, his aluminum baseball bat at ready. A shadow moved on the ground behind him like something was flying above him, then a dark form descended.
It was no more than a shadow at first, but as sunlight glowed at its edges, it bled into form as something less than human. It became an alien with tiger fur, fangs and huge webbed feet. Brian gasped, the meat inspector swung around, automatically striking a blow with his baseball bat. It didn't faze the alien at all. Its mouth opened in a roar and a bright-red electrical charge bloodied the meat inspector as it threw him down.
The inspector was on the ground like a slab of beef to be inspected. Still open-mouthed, Brian looked back to the alien and saw only disintegrating shadows. Suddenly he remembered where he'd seen the thing before. It was a boss bad guy from an old computer game called DoomCraft. Which meant it couldn't be real. He was either nuts from stress or hallucinating.
Hands shaking, the hum vibrating like a death engine in his brain, he walked across the warehouse to a fire door. A stack of old desks creaked beside him as he pulled the cobwebs away. The lock appeared rusted shut, but he managed to force it and loosen the door. It suddenly opened wide, and the wind caught it and banged it against the wall. Knocked back by the gust, it took Brian a moment to recover. His vision cleared on a crazy scene. A man was on the ground a few yards away. One of the meat inspectors, and he was covered in blood and choking. A moment later a horrible horned monster stepped into view, snorted and began clawing the man to death. Emerald electricity shot from cloven feet, blood spurted up. Brian ran back inside the warehouse, ducked down a row of shelves and swung up into a giant bin of discarded pencils. Peering over the edge, he waited. The demon wasn't coming in after him. He remembered it as a duplicate of one of the dinosaur demons from the computer game DeathFlight. In that old game, the bad guys weren’t smart enough to track you.
He tried to think. The warehouse had been closed because of ghost stories and strange accidents, but there’d been no mention of ghost monsters from computer games; monsters that would kill you in real time. Then there was Long John Silver, another ghost as he’d died months ago. Hauntings were often apparitions. Maybe no one had died. Perhaps he’d seen prepared hallucinations designed to keep him inside. But keep him inside for what? There was nothing in here but junk.
Rising, he found himself covered with dust, and as he tried to brush it away, he slipped on the pencils and tumbled out of the bin, hitting the concrete floor hard. Groaning, he got to one knee. He heard the sound of shattering glass. It was up near the entrance. Someone or something was breaking in. Limping, he went up an aisle toward the sound. A cloud of dust rose near the wall then the wood splintered on a boarded window and the end of a crowbar came through. Rotted wood fell to the floor and a moment later Jim's head poked through the opening.
Brian hurried up to him. “What are you doing? Do you want the monsters to find you?”
“What monsters? There's nothing here. The back lot is empty and from what I've seen through the windows, the place is deserted. I want to look around. Maybe it's a setup. You come here to work as a scab and get jumped by a few guys.”
“You get jumped by creatures. Have you seen your men?”
“They're okay. They're scouting on the other side.”
“They're not okay, they're dead. Climb in and I'll show you.”
“Maybe you better do that,” Jim said, pulling himself through. Only he never got through. Something seized him from behind and he started to scream. “Ahhhhh! . . . Brian, pull me in!”
Brian moved fast, grabbing Jim's arm. He pulled hard, but something pulled back and Jim's screams got wild like it was the devil that had his ass. A hard yank pulled Jim partway in, but the movement also caused Brian to lose his grip. He staggered back and Jim bounced back to the sill, still screaming. A shadow flew in the corner of Brian's eye; something coming down from a heap. It hit Jim's head so hard his skull shattered and he collapsed as his brains oozed out. A slimy hand appeared on his shoulder and pulled him out the window, his limp arms bouncing.
The deadly object was an IBM typewriter. Hearing soft laughter Brian looked up the heap and saw Long John Silver standing there. He had to be mad; his weight would cause the heap to tumble. Brian turned and fled, headed for the rear of the warehouse.
He came to a wall and got through a heavy door to a newer portion of the warehouse. Shelves and supplies looked to be in order here. No one was about so he went to work blocking the door with some heavy crates. It came to him that Silver wasn't dead after all, but alive and insane. And he had an accomplice or two to help him with the killings. Maybe that was the story of the Northern Purchasing Warehouse. It’d been haunted all right, but by Long John Silver and his gang of bloodthirsty apparitions.
Looking around he spotted a filing computer. It was on with a saver running. Walking over he touched the mouse and a map of the warehouse came into view. He clicked on the current area and it zoomed in to a list and a close-up map. A restricted area was marked at the edge of the map so he clicked it and got a warning message - Danger, High Voltage, Do Not Enter. “This has to be the root of it,” he muttered. “Something high voltage and top secret is hidden here. Once I find out what it is I'll know what I'm up against.”
Putting the map to memory, he walked through the maze of shelves to the door of the restricted area. It was at the end of a row stacked with huge snow tires for the government plows, and it wasn't marked, but blocked by an electric mini plow. Climbing on the plow, he hit the ignition and drove it out of the way. A large fire extinguisher sat behind it. Looking the extinguisher over he noticed an odd button and hit it. A moment later, a camouflaged door silently slid open.
Peculiar lights pulsed in some unknown wavelength and shadows floated. A few seconds passed before his eyes focused. No one was at the door so he looked inside. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled. He felt a charge crawl on his skin. It reached his scalp and lifted some of his hair. He could see a number of workstations. Computers networked to a large server at the center. This server wasn't like anything on the market, but something brand-new with a strange set of ports and connections.
Stepping inside he studied an odd setup of power control panels then looked around . . . the lights and shadows making him jumpy. A quick check on a networked laptop told him that all of the computers were running on an unknown operating system -- not contemporary graphics, but screens of arcane symbols in a coded language. Spotting a power cable, he walked to it and followed it. Another huge machine was at the back -- not a computer but a chamber and platform. A backup generator hummed beside it and several high voltage cables ran to various components. Whatever it was, it used incredible amounts of power that was most likely taken from the hydro station next door.
An open door led into a tunnel next to the generator. Possibly an exit. Deciding to forget about the mystery and escape, Brian walked over. The light was steady in the tunnel and it appeared empty. He was about to enter when he heard a crackle. Turning he saw a screen flashing at one of the workstations. A graphic slowly generated on the screen.
Energy crackled in the chamber and a distorted beam appeared on the platform. The image the smaller computer was rendering was also appearing on the platform, like a holo image. And the image was John Silver.
Silver's smile was friendly, but it thoroughly spooked Brian. He turned and fled down the tunnel to a small door. A button opened it and he ran out, finding himself in a small rooftop guard post. The back parking lot was ten feet below but there was no way to get down. He felt sweat running on his back. Panicking, he starting kicking the Plexiglas as hard as he could, and on the fifth kick, it shattered. Swinging over and down he dropped to the empty lot and ran for the maple trees by the fence.
The blackened body of one of the meat inspectors lay in the mud. Brian leapt over it and ran into the maples. Looking back, he saw no one, but that didn't slow him. Spotting a narrow path, he dashed to it and ran to its end. It opened on another parking lot, this one belonging to a drive-in burger joint at the end of the shopping mall. He went inside, took a table at the back and sat there shaking. He wasn't worried about the strike anymore. Somehow he'd been recalled, but to another reality and not back to work. Could he really run from twisted stuff like this?
Two teens, one a skinny black and the other a white kid with a sneering imp’s face were the only other patrons. They stared at him like tough guys and then out the window to see what he was running from. They saw nothing and decided to ignore him. “Likely think I'm nuts,” Brian thought. He’d left his cell phone at home but he was near the counter phone here and the best idea would be to call the police. Take action to shut the warehouse down before more people died. But what would he say? That John Silver, who is dead, is being regenerated by a super computer in a warehouse -- him and duplicates of monsters from old action games. They'd think it was a hoax, or else want him to return with them while they investigated. The result would be that the police would find the bodies and think he did the killings.
Alerted by a flash of light his attention went back to the teens. The flash turned out to be a reflection from a gun barrel. The black kid had the gun out and he handed it to the white kid -- an automatic. Brian was close enough to read the embossed Falcon 4 on the side. “Not more trouble,” he thought, and then he noticed something moving in the maples. It was the miniplough from the warehouse, shoveling dead leaves and litter as there was no snow. It looked like Long John Silver at the controls. The teens were distracted by it so Brian rose and prepared to dash out.
The plough didn't stop; it emerged from the maples, crossed the lot and drove straight through the flimsy wall and windows. Glass shattered, the white kid opened fire and Brian ducked behind a table.
Blood flowered on Silver's perfect gray suit as the bullets hit. One slug hit him in the face, turning his nose and jaw into a smashed gore pancake. He fell off the plow and rolled under a table, then got to his feet. The kid prepared to let loose with another clip, but before he could, a DoomWorld beast spawned behind him and charged. The snorting creature connected and the effect was fireworks electrocution; the kid’s body blackened and collapsed.
The beast faded into thin air. Brian looked to Silver; his bullet smashed face was stomach-turning hamburger. Knocking a table aside, Brian ran. He stumbled through the broken window with the black kid at his side and ran back into the maples. A minute later, he emerged in the warehouse parking lot and halted. It felt like his lungs were going to burst, and he was right back where he started. He glanced around and spotted a rifle-toting security guard heading toward him -- another of Silver's men. He tried to duck back but a female guard came around the side. Taking off over the lot, he ended up running in an open fire exit.
A man stepped out of dim light. “Jim,” Brian said, his face brightening briefly. Then he saw blood and the gun. Jim looked dead, pale, and happy about it. And the gun was the Falcon 4 the teens were showing off at the burger joint.
“We do things fast around here,” Jim said, “not like your usual civil servants. Now move, pal. It's time for your briefing on your new job.”
Stunned to silence, the gun jabbing his side, Brian moved with Jim. They went back to the computer room and into an office off to the side. John Silver was there at his desk, a tall rubber plant beside him. His eyes were bright and so was his face. Electrical energy moved in a pattern, covering and healing the area that’d been destroyed.
“So, you’re in desperate need of work, Brian,” Mr. Silver said as Brian sat.
“Well, er uh, I've been recalled,” Brian said, clasping his hands together to stop the shaking.
“It was tough out there, on the dole for a year, wasn't it?”
“It was, but I had temporary work.”
“We know about your little business. It's one of the reasons for the recall. You can do repairs on computer networks as well as software work. Is that correct?”
“Good, because there's been a reorg. A number of jobs have been combined. Your new position as Systems Control Officer involves maintaining the equipment here. Replacing boards, seeing that the system gets back up should there be a major power failure. You will also be developing a new release of your search software as the department will be looking to spend a lot of money.”
“The job sounds wonderful,” Brian said nervously. “But there are some problems.”
“Well. You aren't human for one thing, and Jim there is dead. Then there are the monsters spawning in to kill everyone.”
“Ah, questions, questions, questions,” John Silver said, throwing up his hands. “You union boys always have to be in the know about everything. Okay, the monsters are only temporary, simple creations we generate to scare people off. Once we have enough staff back we won't need them.”
“And what about the staff, do you plan on converting us to non humans?”
“You’ve heard of downsizing, this is downloading. Unfortunately for you, Brian - we need you as you are.”
“Well, Brian,” Silver said, looking up like he always did when one of his speeches was about to begin. “I'm supposed to be disgraced and dead; a fraud artist who swindled the public. But I'm not. The money was spent here on the computer network. It's the most advanced system in the world. This is a system that is being used to upgrade the civil service and the human race. It can scan a human body, store the information and recreate the person in a new energy form.”
“You mean that's what you are?”
“Yes, I've been recreated. But the hitch is that the system has to be up and powered or I don't exist.”
“I see, you mean you need me because in a failure I can get the system back up.”
“Why would you trust me?”
“You were carefully selected. You've always been a good civil servant, Brian. You’re a believer in the cause. Think about it. The government is selling everything off to the private sector. Our people will never make good money again. The dream is all but over and the wolf is at the door. But what if it could be different? Think of this -- a world-wide civil service that pays top wages and benefits. A new civil service run by me, John Silver, the biggest spending bureaucrat in the history of government. And I'll be using your search software to spend the money. It will be a perfect world controlled by computer generated government workers; a perfect racial mix with no greedy capitalists and no labour strife. Whatever the union wants, I'll pay it. Could you not be a part of it? Could you let this opportunity slip by?”
“But what you're asking is crazy. You want me to betray the human race to a super computer.”
“Not betray. You're doing what has to be done. If it bothers you, we'll sweeten the pot. Starting this week you'll be getting merit pay of five thousand dollars a week.”
“Five thousand a week. I'll take it. Wait, just a minute. How long is it going to take to create this new human race?”
“A while. That's where our meat inspectors come in. They will bring the workers to us for scanning and upgrading and then dispose of the bodies. Once we have more offices with power hookups and a solid network the pace will pick up. You're destined to be a state hero, Brian. The world will never forget your contribution.”
Maple buds were bursting to new foliage on the trees at the rear of the warehouse, and Brian walked over to the freezer truck thinking of springtime and the new world. Jim appeared, dragging a body to the conveyor. Brian watched it slide by. The eyes stared, a horrified expression embossed the face, but it was all for the good. And it was great to be back to work, great to be helping good old government incorporated take over the world. Humanity; it was getting to be a genuine ghost in the machine. But at least it was a machine where Brian was a working cog and not on the junk heap. He jumped up in the spring breeze, did an old dance step and smiled as he saluted the rising sun. Smiled and rubbed his eyes, because the strike was still on but the days of mean were over.
---The End ---
© By Gary L Morton
The summer sun sailed high in the haze and as I got out of the Ford in Leaside, a jungle-humid breeze began to melt me to sticky ice cream. Jimmy C was already halfway across the softened asphalt lot, taking long legged steps and waving for me to follow. I did but my feet moved with reluctance. Excitement over small things didn't move me like it did him.
Experience in politics and a weak heart made enthusiasm something the fates couldn't deliver. My instincts were telling me things would go wrong and as usual, I turned out to be right.
At the corner, I stopped to pat my brow with a handkerchief. Looking to Jimmy I asked him if the new office had air conditioning.
“Yeah it does, Roger,” he said. “I made sure of that. The place is a dump all right, but that's all you wanted. It has a back entrance that’s hard to find. You'll be able to get in and out without being hassled.”
“Best of all it's in Leaside,” I said. “I need an office in the riding, even if I rarely use it. I'm tired of the papers pointing out that I don't live on my home political turf.”
“A lot of people don't like parachute candidates. It's only natural that they feel an outsider wouldn't be good as their provincial member of parliament.”
“I'm not an outsider. I lived in Leaside all my life, and then the fewer politicians committee redrew the boundaries and put my house and office outside of the riding.”
“Why didn't you oppose the change? You had the time.”
“It was a mistake. I wasn't paying attention because it was part of our re-election strategy. We agreed to a reduction of the number of politicians. Here in Leaside, we managed to dump the gay, tenant and public housing area over onto liberal turf and I got more homeowners. It put two thousand more core Conservative votes in my pocket and it did work. Now I'm re-elected but I don't live in my home riding as the changes put me outside it by one street. I missed that detail. Worst part of it is that all elected politicians in my new neighborhood are damn liberals and the Toronto Star says I didn't have the courage to run against any of them.”
“I hate liberals, too,” Jimmy C said, a pissed look souring his long horsy face. Then we walked around the corner and found ourselves right in the middle of a crowd of liberal protesters.
They were screaming my name and something about schools and hospitals we planned to close and the banks of slot machines I’d put in at the community centre. Jimmy threw out his long arms to hold them back, but a frizzed-out woman knocked him in the balls and as he went down a junkie intellectual type wearing a marijuana leaf T-shirt burst through and bopped me on the crown with a cardboard picket sign.
My vision started to spin and my ears rang like a phone. I could see the sun and this huge burger joint sign ballooning in the haze as I staggered back. Car horns blared. I stepped off the curb and my heart suddenly felt like it was going to pop. I went down on one knee. Pouring sweat blinded me and I saw the angry face of this pretty, young blond girl as she spat right on my new white shirt.
At that point, I did something crazy. I stood up and started to run, right to the centre of the street and through the honking traffic. I got off the road at the corner and stumbled into the parking lot. Looking back, I saw about twenty people pursuing me, but I managed to keep ahead and at the car, I jumped in and locked the doors.
A squabble developed between Jimmy C and the protesters, but I couldn't even look. Heat and waves of dizziness were on me as my heart provided the scene with a hip-hop beat. It was all I could do to keep from vomiting so I grimaced and hung on until Jimmy C settled things and got back to the car.
Jimmy C slammed the door. He tossed back his mop of hair and cleared his throat as he got the air conditioning started. “Thought I wasn't going to get away alive,” he said. “I had to make a couple promises for you.”
“Promises. What promises?”
“Just that you’ll pull those slot machines out of the community centre and do some work on their behalf on a couple of those other issues.”
“Yeah, and I suppose they call that democracy. Shouting, spitting, bullying and assaulting elected representatives.”
“I don't know if it's democracy. Maybe if they voted to string us up at City Hall someone would say it was democracy. And why is everyone hollering about democracy? That's what they were shouting at me – it wasn't democracy when you just put those slot machines in there without consulting the public.”
“We have a majority government, Jimmy. And we are forging ahead to tear down inefficient societal organisms and restructure our way to a better Ontario. Consulting the public is a just a way for special interest groups to get in the door and run things. There's a broad silent majority out there supporting our work.”
“Maybe so, but I prefer people who show support and say thanks over those who remain silent. Those special interest protesters may be idiots but they're smart enough to know that if they're out there and in your hair all the time, they'll at least get some of what they want.”
In the early afternoon, I decided to step out in the yard and almost immediately began choking on smog. The sun glared down and I felt somewhat helpless like a chicken under an oven light. Often during such moments of weakness, I wished I hadn’t voted against smog controls.
To escape the roar and exhaust I strolled around back and sat by the pool in the shade of an oak. Patches of algae, gold slime and fallen leaves floated on the water. It'd got so swampy I saw a frog hopping near the edge.
The pool, a gift from a grateful developer, went unused now that the kids were gone. Staring at the greening soup, I sipped gin and contemplated my family situation. Maggie, my wife, had gone to her fitness club. That was her official word but I suspected her of meeting with a boyfriend. She would probably never see to cleaning the pool. That had been my son Danny's job. He used to dip in it every day up until a month ago when I disowned him. I had thought him a model child, then his grades dropped to Cs and he got filmed smoking pot with a socialist city councilor at a gay nude beach. By the horrifying standards of the media, it was okay to smoke pot in the nude with socialist fags. The issue that put Danny on the City TV six o'clock news was a fight. He’d socked another guy in a nude scuffle. Since he was in Grade 12 and I was promoting a zero tolerance policy toward youth violence they seized on it and used it to embarrass me politically.
I disowned him when he refused the treatment offered by the local parent council. Ostensibly, it was over the violence. In reality, I'd wept then when I found out my kid had been fraternizing with socialist fags. It also shook my faith in zero tolerance. At least in fighting he'd shown signs of being a man, and our society wanted that discouraged. Nowadays fags are behind the scenes running special interest groups and pulling the strings everywhere - politicians can't fight them, instead they have to march with them in the yearly pride parade.
So Danny left and we still had Mary, but that only lasted for two weeks. The media struck again and she appeared in a community newspaper, confessing to having lost her virginity in a barn while returning on a bus from a Conservative youth convention. I kicked her out for that. She moved into an apartment and when she came to my office as a representative of tenants, I kicked her out again. It wasn't just because she'd damaged her reputation and the Party. As an individual, I've never liked sex and it bothers me to have that scandal hanging over me.
Slumping in my chair, I sighed and let my head hang. I looked down at my crotch and the bulge made by my limp dick. Lack of a sex life probably aided my weak heart greatly, and overall the flaccid organ was my secret weapon. Male politicians went down in sexy scandals all the time, and I was immune. The old limp dick was worth more than its weight in gold.
I decided that limp rewritten as lame would probably describe my life in general. I had no family life left and my backyard now belonged to pond scum, weeds and Sylvester, my wife's twenty-pound cat. Grimacing I watched him prowl near the fence, figuring I hated him as much as I hated my kids. He got fat because I tried to kill him by overfeeding him. When Maggie brought Sylvester in as a kitten, I gave him mashed potatoes and gravy and stuff straight from the garbage grinder. But Sylvester never got sick. He just got bigger, fatter and hungrier. He was a politician of cats. Now he could grunt like a pig and even big dogs backed away from him.
In mid afternoon Jimmy C’s silver Ford rolled up the driveway. I was sitting there sweating teardrops and feeling a sense of loss. He waved and I got in the car, not even bothering to ask him where we were going. Jimmy C rocked his head to an old pop song playing on the radio and took the scenic route through Leaside. That consisted of one central boulevard before he swerved in to scare a street kid and then turned down Leaside Court where the view changed to a snakes-and-ladders jumble of ramps and freeways feeding industrial parks. In this central part of Leaside you had the feeling of continually driving past the same dull block. No sense of community just far flung squares of Frankenstein-big factories, apartment buildings and out of the way condos.
The car swung right as we reached the sprawling Nestle Foods complex, then we cruised down Dun Street. We passed a stinky cereal mill and headed into the block's residential section. Massive high-rises towered like fortifications over narrow concrete streets. We saw a few pedestrians on canopied front yards, some half-naked kids playing baseball in the street, and not much else.
I didn't care for this sort of neighbourhood or any community that was mostly tenants. A pang of regret hit me in the old weak ticker. Leaside could've been something a lot better than huge industrial islands isolated by freeways. And it would've been better if a dishonest politician hadn't supported so much bad planning. Being that dishonest politician made it even more painful.
A sprinkling of small cottage-style houses appeared and brought me some comfort. I sat back and looked around a bit, and then I began to wonder where we were going. Half of the time, I didn't know where we would be from one day to the next. The other half of the time, I didn't even know where we were or who we were addressing. Politics and gin does that to you.
“By the way,” I said to Jimmy C. “Why are we visiting Nestle? Is this a fundraising event?”
“Nope. We're driving through to Slumberdale for a look at your new riding office.”
“Oh no. Not again. I thought we gave up on a riding office. My heart's gonna fail if I have to wrestle with any more protesters.”
“There won't be any trouble. That's why I picked this isolated Slumberdale location. It's a new part of the riding. On the boundary redraw those tenants back there got dumped onto the liberals and you picked up Slumberdale.”
“I get it. Our service cuts haven't wounded anyone in Slumberdale, so we can count on the residents to be supportive.”
“Not exactly. You'll get it when we pass the barrier,” he said. And after that, we crested a pine hill and rolled down to a stop at a roadblock. A high gate and electric fence covered the road and the ditches and the main sign said - SLUMBERDALE - Access by City of Toronto Vehicles Only.
Jimmy C used a pointing device similar to a TV control, aiming it at a receiver mounted high on the empty guard post. He pressed the button and the gate for our lane swung slowly inward, revealing a steamy gravel road beyond. I remained silent and open mouthed as he eased the vehicle through. He drove slowly down the road into an odd sort of nature area. Thistle filled ditches and brush nearly choked the lanes in many spots. The mixed forest was dense and laden with deadwood and other debris.
We were headed down on a slight incline, the view ahead completely hazed out by a lake of smog. Higher up, freeways surrounded the area like a sort of twisted fencing. After about a quarter kilometer the road dipped sharply, we cut through the smog and I got a clear view of Slumberdale.
It existed in a depression, and because the freeway and industrial pollution from the whole of Leaside drifted over the place, it would nearly always be hidden from view. The sunlight filtered through in a slightly off color fashion. It didn't lack power and at first, I thought some of the roofs were undergoing melt from its heat. Then I got a better focus and realized that the whole place was drooping and melting. It was a tiny ghost suburb, composed of blocks of housing that would date to about the late sixties. All of it was in visibly bad shape to the point where only a bulldozer could affect any repairs. Roofs sagged like a huge web across a jungle of weeds, mounds, brush and maples. Even the streets were overgrown, the road we were on being the only visible track into the place. Needless to say, there wasn't any traffic below in regards to vehicles and pedestrians.
As a kid, I'd played in a condemned house we'd thought to be haunted. Some of the spooked feeling from that childhood memory returned, and then grew with incredible power. This place looked as hexed as any town could be. To the extent that the feeling got under my skin and I felt partly unreal. Slumberdale had been slumbering for at least thirty-five years. It seemed impossible and even more impossible that I'd been unaware of it so I turned to Jimmy C and said, “Okay, you've had your fun. So how about telling me why we're here and what in the hell this place is?”
“What, you've never heard of Slumberdale? I thought all politicians knew of it.”
“I'm a local politician, Jimmy. I've barely looked over the neighbourhood fence in twenty years. And this damn place wasn't in my riding before. So why is it now, and why am I moving my office here?”
“Calm down, Roger. Let me fill you in. Slumberdale was to be demolished during the freeway/industrial invasion of Leaside. The local residents resisted, same as in the rest of Leaside. As you may recall they lost all of those fights, and in Slumberdale, they were eventually forced out. Everyone except one wealthy lawyer named Tom James. He's ninety-five years old now and he's held the city and developers at bay for thirty-five years. Right now, he's in the hospital with a terminal illness, so my plan is to kill two birds with one stone. I already had a place put together here in your name. Now I've added the riding office to it. You are in Leaside, and government services such as mail, ambulances, etc. are provided. Protesters would likely never be able to find the address since only one back road out of Nestle leads here. Here you can do your business undisturbed. And when the old geezer croaks it will come to light that not only are you the elected representative here, but as the only living member of the registered Slumberdale Residents Association you will hold incredible power as to what is to be done in redeveloping this land.”
I'd been rising in my seat as Jimmy C finished, and I don't know whether it was wings of optimism or wings of the spooks, but I clapped him on the back and grinned so broadly I thought my face was going to be permanently disordered. “Jeeze, you're a genius, Jimmy C. We're going to be rich, rich, rich! And not only that. I'll be able to work in peace. It's only two weeks until the legislature reopens, and I've got to come up with the bones of a public relations advertising package. So I'll be in the new office most of the time.”
“Public relations ad package. What's that about?”
“As you know, we spent half a billion dollars of public money boosting ourselves before the last election. The trick is to use the public information budget to cover it up. We create new and cheap public service ads and bill the money we stole to them. It's top-secret work of course. We can't have protesters or the media breaking into my office and discovering it.”
“Certainly not. And we have security out here where no one can find you. You'll do a good job. I'll be available round the clock while you're working. Anything you want ferried in or any research you need, just call and I'll get it.”
The steep road into the Slumberdale residential area was new asphalt, and though it was smooth as glass the houses we passed were rotted shells. The paint had bleached right off of most walls. Mold stains, fungus and curtains of vine shrouded house fronts. They rose out of the weeds like the sagging upper decks of sea battered ships. One mansion with southern columns propping up its wilted porch fit the description of vintage haunted house. Cracked, darkened and cobwebby windows appeared everywhere like portholes into the ghostly unknown. There were also some areas where the houses had collapsed completely. In these lots sunbeams formed spotlights in dust and mist as they swept over the weed-covered mounds of tick-eaten wood that remained.
Raccoons were out like masked hoodlums even though it was daytime; many of them perched on cheese-holed roofs. Squirrels dashed madly through the dense foliage and wildflowers. Crickets sang and flocks of sparrows had a bat-like appearance as they flitted in high smog. Jimmy C whistled a haunting tune like he was trying to get under my skin. I felt like telling him to end it and would've if the assault on my senses hadn't been so intense. I was so amazed and dumbfounded that I couldn't speak.
Our destination was only two blocks in, yet it seemed like a kilometer. Jimmy C pulled in at a neat, canopied parking space. The open town square held a clutch of civic buildings. These were still maintained by city public works and were old stone constructions designed to pass the test of time. The central structures were the post office and village hall - stately columnar affairs that would fit nicely in an old movie.
To the right of the post office, in all gaudy glory, I saw my riding office. A huge remake of one of my re-election signs decorated the front and a celebratory welcome banner fluttered in the breeze above it. My face stared down from a poster - suave and smiling easily, neatly trimmed with features slightly aged and reddened like good wine. My blue eyes sparkling with sincerity and vision as my forehead folded in mildly serious lines. It was a poster that looked great and totally out of place in this ghost town.
“You'll be feeling at home in no time,” Jimmy C said as we got out. But I doubted that. A sort of reverse déjà vu was in the air and it gained strength as we strolled across the neatly swept square. I was certain that I'd never been to Slumberdale before and shouldn't have come. The idea of eventually working on its redevelopment should've seemed exciting. I didn't look forward to it at all.
My riding office was on the second floor, the first level being an open public lobby with a broad polished stone floor. It was lonely, furnished with an atmosphere of emptiness and echoes. Wide stairs took us up to the office and its solid oak door. Jimmy C fumbled in his pockets, looking for the key, and when he opened up we got a fresh blast from a nicely air conditioned room.
It was impressive in a functional way, containing a big grainy desk, two networked computers and some seating for visitors. A small window at the front allowed me a view of the square, and a rear door led to a private room with a kitchenette, bookshelves, couches and a blurred view of the town's shockingly deteriorated back alleys.
In the back room, I unpacked the two briefcases we'd brought out. Jimmy C pulled some gin from the fridge then we went back into the office and I sat at my desk and leaned back.
He gulped his drink as he stared out nervously at the sunny square.
“Something you don't like out there?” I said.
“It's always spooky here,” he said. “Workers come in about once a week to keep this square maintained. Other than that we're alone out here.”
“Good. Say, is that computer connected to the Internet?'
“Yes and the phone lines work. I had them put in. Cell phone connection is spotty here. No towers. Use the land lines if you have to.”
“Okay. I can start work right now. I’ll download some files and start working on brochures. Maybe make some calls and get some confidential quotes on prices for a long series of commercials for the Premier. You can pick me up at about eight. I'll give you a call. If you ring me, try my cell phone number first. I don't trust the lines to this office phone.”
“Sure, no sweat,” Jimmy said. Then he finished his drink and left.
I leaned back and stared into cool space until I heard him driving away, then my attention went to my desk and I noticed a letter in the in box. “Office mail service, too,” I thought. “I'm really beginning to like Slumberdale.”
The somewhat scuffed manila envelope was addressed to “Our Member of Provincial Parliament.” I opened it with a brass letter opener and examined a wad of thick sheets. Ornate handwriting covered a form of parchment, and a closer inspection revealed that it wasn't genuine parchment but ordinary paper so aged as to be yellowed and crumbling at the edges. The last page had an impressive collection of signatures. About one hundred in all and they were listed as the members of the Slumberdale Residents' Association.
I raised my eyebrows when I saw that and gathered it to be one of those dead letters - the sort that the post by mistake delivers twenty years late. To verify that I checked the date, and felt a postman walking over my grave when I found that it was recent.
My eyes strained with interest, I chewed on my lip and read the letter.
Greetings from the citizens of Slumberdale.
As the newly appointed head of the Slumberdale Residents' Association (SRA) we are certain that you are awaiting our guidance in regards to many important matters.
We expect that reconstruction may occur soon and in this matter, there are certain long-standing agreements that must be followed. There are items regarding bylaws and the building of roads, and there are certain historical sites, seventy in all, which must be fully refurbished by our local and provincial governments.
You will find the full details of our plan in the Slumberdale Library in the SRA files. The residents have voted on all of these matters and we are sure that as our representative you will follow the plan to the letter.
Samuel Thorold James
Secretary for the SRA
Swallowing the last of my gin in a big gulp, I wondered whether to tear the letter up or hold onto it. I tossed it in the top drawer thinking that it had to be a joke, probably one of Jimmy C's pranks. But I still felt spooked, as the letter seemed real. It was exactly the sort of thing one of those Residents' Associations would send to a politician - a plan that details their special interests, with the expectation that an honest representative would be dishonest and follow it to the letter at tremendous cost to the taxpayer. Sad, deluded people, always thinking they had the right to vote things through when the real world didn't work like that at all. Corporations and lobbyists hold the lion's share of power in society as they are always at work like a marching army using their clout to put government in their hands. Since they have the money as well as power over representatives who need it, power is theirs by default.
As I pushed my chair back my frown conveyed serious contempt, then I felt my hair beginning rise and stiffen. What was I thinking about, calling them sad and deluded people? There weren't any people in Slumberdale, unless they were ghosts. “Naw, there isn’t such a thing as a spook,” I muttered. Getting up I went over to power up the computer. Then while I waited for it to boot, I saw a strange person walking out in the square. He was a tall bony man. His ragged suit was too tight and he wore a clerical collar. His battered black hat was pulled down over his eyes, shielding his face from the sun. “Perhaps that’s Samuel Thorold James,” I thought as he slowly went up the steps to the library.
At the top of the steps, the man simply vanished in the shadows hooding the door. I stared for a moment longer and when he didn't reappear, my hand went to my chest. My heart seemed all right but I was certain it wasn't. Heart flutters had caused me mild hallucinations before and now it was happening in the worst possible situation. Usually it passed after a few minutes and I prayed it would this time. This sort of confusion in Slumberdale would probably lead to real problems.
Working at the computer, I connected to the Internet and began downloading photo sets of our elected members. I did a little copywriting, but while I worked, I was irritatingly aware of the window lurking there at the corner of my eye. This assigned task of covering for money we’d illegally spent and getting the party ready for the next election was already starting to bother me, but I was stuck with it, as I wouldn't trust anyone else with the job. After all, the people that did the work last time were some of the same ones that snuggled up to the Liberals, gave me Slumberdale and put my house out of the riding.
Using the business calendar, I put together a long-term tentative release schedule for the material, and this figuring with dates tied my head in a knot. My glance kept straying to the window. It shone - a bright white square, sort of like a window in a bizarre painting. I was tempted to stand up and look outside, yet had a strange fear that like a surreal image the window would open onto to some fantastic and impossible view.
Finally, I'd had enough, and stood up, walked over and rested my elbows on the sill. Everything appeared unchanged at first then I saw a three hundred pound whale of a woman wearing a dress like a burlap sack. She carried some sort of picket sign at the front of the town hall. The letters on it were so faded I couldn't read them. Her flowered hat and shadows covered her face. She paraded out front of the hall for a couple minutes then she walked over to the library and disappeared in the shadows there.
I took a deep breath and felt the hair on my arms bristle and crawl. Were they hallucinations or not? If they were, my doctor would want to know. A walk over to the library would bring out the truth. I could also check on those documents that the Slumberdale Residents' Association was supposed to have on file, and get a clue on who was behind the letter hoax. Perhaps that terminally ill lawyer, Tom James that Jimmy C had mentioned, still had a few tricks up his sleeve. He could easily be well enough to write letters.
I went down the stairs, my heels clacked as I crossed the empty concourse. Birds were singing out in the square but that didn't kill the spooky effect. The tangle of foliage and trees surrounding the area gave it a movie set feeling like it wasn't quite real and I was acting a simple part that had been scripted long ago.
The Slumberdale library was a much older municipal structure. A slightly tilted turret tower crowned its southern wing and I assumed it had once been a reading room. The stone front had been neatly blasted clean and the bushes trimmed by the city staff that maintained this square.
In spite of the clean appearance of the facade, I could see foliage rising like the Amazon Jungle over the rear sections. No one lingered on the front steps or in the shadows and one door was unbolted and ajar. I touched the handle and it swung open on oiled hinges, revealing an interior much like my office. The ground floor had been left completely empty only here the floor was ancient hardwood.
The library lacked an elevator, but a rickety set of stairs led up to the second floor and the reading tower. The banisters were sturdy and newly varnished but the steps creaked wickedly, like heavy boards worn in place by decades of local footsteps.
At the top, I turned left apprehensively and found myself in the stacks. Yellowed light filtered in through windows that were so grimy they were like a stained glass version of parchment. The reading area appeared empty but it was so dim I couldn't be sure. As I stepped closer, a thousand-legged bug skittered by on the spines and I struck out at it, causing a cloud of dust to rise. Choking, I got to a circular table and leaned heavily on it. My heart was pounding now and sweat beaded on my forehead.
Further exploration revealed a lot of interesting stuff but no patrons. I did find the files for the Slumberdale Residents' Association, and the last one did detail plans for preserving historical sites as mentioned in the letter. This copy was twenty-six years old. Dusting it off, I looked inside it for a clue of some sort but found none. As I turned back for the stairs, I caught sight of another set of stairs leading up to the tower. These were covered with rotting red carpeting but seemed secure. Allowing curiosity to get the better of me I went up, testing my weight on each stair before rising fully to it. At the top, I found an open room with a few shelves. A large round table was at the centre.
After dropping the thick Residents' Association file on the dusty table, I walked over to the windows. They covered the full tower circle and I was sure they would give a much better view of Slumberdale. Sunlight glowed on glass glazed by smog and cobwebs. I couldn't see a thing through them so I grabbed a portion of a linen curtain and used it to wipe a partially clean rectangle on the pane. That gave me a view of the square and a person walking below. This time it was a stout elderly woman wearing a print dress. She carried a bouquet of completely dead flowers and walked in bright sunlight with a small blanket over her face. She disappeared in mist as she approached the library and she appeared to have been heading toward the side alley leading to the back.
My face flushed as the sunlight got to me. Wondering if there were people walking about in the collapsed portions of town I walked across the room and began cleaning another window. I was partway done when I noticed it had a handle. Rust fell as I turned it and it opened inward. Breeze rushed in, lifted the curtains, and filled the room with a sweet odor of flowers and decay. Looking out I saw a few moldy roofs showing through the canopy of maples. One house almost directly below me had some clear yard areas. I could see a bur-patch backyard and a pudgy kid pushing a wobbly cart full of broken toys through it. He wore an oversize Maple Leafs sweatshirt and his baseball cap was pulled down over his face. I couldn't be sure of his age but he was likely twelve or thereabouts. He disappeared in shadows near some trees.
“Why do these damn people cover their faces with hats and stuff?” I thought, as I looked over the rest of the neighbourhood. “And where do they go when they disappear?” No immediate answer came to me. Details of the view consumed me. Battered roofs and porches presented an aged and forlorn face. Vague apparitions moved in the shadows. Old rusted-out cars and drums poked out of the leaves here and there. A cloud of white moths fluttered over one shady house. Sewer culverts protruded from broken ground. Balconies seemed to exist as containers for the abundance of wildflowers and some houses had eves and shingles overgrown with toadstools like a crusting or pizza topping. There were no other open streets but former roads were clearly delineated as wide lines of bee infested scrub and weeds. This was a case of the wild in the last stages of gobbling up a village. Its mould, vines, weeds and scrub growing and pulling down buildings with the power of weather, root and rot.
Instead of aiding my recovery, the breeze had a power of intoxication. I had a vague and paranoid fear that deadly spores from the rot were in the air and entering my blood stream. Heading back to the table, I paused to wipe the sweat from my brow, and then a power of exhaustion forced me to sit. With the heat continually baking me, the dizziness was impossible to shake and in the end, it forced me to dust off a portion of the table and rest my head on the book.
I fell into restless sleep there in the tower and experienced a period of strange dreams. Most of them were haunted visions of Slumberdale and its faceless residents. It rained hats and dogs and then in the final dream I was my old self and out campaigning in the Slumberdale square. The place had become like the rest of Leaside with a good portion of hecklers and protesters working to interrupt my public message. Turning up my microphone, I attacked them with some of my best rhetoric. Concluding with the lines. “I've always been here to represent the silent majority and not special interest groups and loud mouths. I promise you all that I will build Slumberdale for the majority, and not for people who think the government owes it to them to fund their greed and nutty projects.”
At that point, I paused to study the faces in the crowd to see if my words were hitting home. But none of the people had faces. Not ones you could see. They all had their hats pulled down to hide their features in the usual Slumberdale fashion.
I couldn't continue with my speech when I couldn't gage a reaction, and it disturbed me to the point that I woke up.
Violet hues of twilight tinted the windows and the breeze had cooled and freshened. Dizziness had not only passed, I felt invigorated by the dream. Attacking special interest groups always gave me a rush of power. And it had stuck in my mind so solidly that I stood up and finished my speech. Walking toward the windows, I hurled invective out at the descending twilight, nearly shouting at the invisible residents. “Special interests in Slumberdale, your day has come and gone! This is Leaside now, and the power of the silent majority rules! So kiss those historical sites goodbye, and kiss my royal ass, too!”
Reaching the window, I had my arms spread wide in victorious conclusion. The square was visible below and in the eerie light, I could see the entire ghostly population of Slumberdale. They had those faded picket signs that I couldn’t read, and as they looked up at me they removed their hats and showed their faces.
All of them were skulls, hung with rotting hair, skin and fangs. Maggots and burning red oozed poured from their eye sockets, and as their mouths opened, a vile form of black blood leaked and dribbled. I saw them hiss collectively and release mist through their nostrils - tendrils of ghostly white that gathered and merged as I stared.
This unearthly mass grew in size and began to rise toward me. Somehow, I knew I would choke to death on this mist, and that caused me to release a terrified scream and duck back from the window. My spine hit the table and I stood there shaking. A moment later my cell phone rang and I heard Jimmy C's voice.
“Big trouble, Roger. They're after you - a huge, nasty gang of them.”
“I know!” I shouted. “It's the silent dead majority! The ugliest special interest group of all is coming for me!”
“What?” Jimmy C said as I panted. “It's not the silent dead majority. It's the living majority of your neighbors. They've surrounded your house and your son and daughter are the agitators. We want you to stay there in Slumberdale until the protest blows over. I'll drive out and get you in the morning.”
“No!” I shouted desperately. “You've got to help me now! I can't stay here!”
Then a burst of fuzz hit the connection and it went dead. The cell phone dropped from my hand to the table as new waves of terror and confusion shook me. I could see mist gathering like a dark sponge at the window, blotting out the twilight. As it shifted to form some bright lines and patches, a face of death appeared on the panes. Hideous and huge, this thing was some sort of ghastly apparition, yet it had substance enough to seethe wetly against the glass, causing droplets the color of blood to run in the dust.
I felt so tiny that being face to face with a tornado would have been less frightening. Yet there was no danger of a heart attack as my blood had simply frozen in my veins. When it did begin to flow again it had slowed like molasses.
It took all of my willpower to shake off the paralysis and move my arm. Clenching my fist, I pounded it down on the table, and at that moment, I came unstuck. The looming phantom seemed about to strike through the gore smeared pane as I staggered back. Certain that it had the power to break through the glass I ran to the door, out, and down the stairs. Once in the stacks, I hurried down an aisle toward the other set of stairs.
Sudden cacophony echoing up brought me to a halt. I grabbed the banister to keep from tumbling. Something crashed behind me. Turning I saw a bookshelf splitting open - rotted parchment and dust spilling out in a tremendous cloud. Beetles of some sort formed black specks in the cloud and heavy objects thumped on the carpet.
One of them rolled over and came to rest at my feet. Dust smoked over me, but I could see well enough to tell it was a skull.
Nearly dancing to get away from it, I went over the edge of the stairs. Slipping, I went down a few steps. Then from my knees, I saw the Slumberdale crowd gathered below. Ghastly grins showed on burning skull faces, eyes with deep anger and vengeance, fingers of bone rising to claw my flesh.
Terror and hot blood shot into my brain. I collapsed, fell forward, and blacked out completely.
Jimmy C found me in the morning. I was spread out and snoring at the bottom of the library stairs. The crumbling book was in my hands, and except for a few bruises and a very sore neck, I was okay.
My throat was so dry I could barely speak, but that didn't matter because what I said didn't make much sense. Rising and leaning on him, I stumbled to the car and we drove out of Slumberdale.
He had a bottle of gin in the hidden bar so I poured a glass and nursed it. I told him I'd had a medical lapse and didn't want anyone to know about it. He nodded and took me to his apartment. I cleaned up before heading home.
“We still got protesters and the press out front of your house,” Jimmy C said. “I spoke firmly with the police, demanding that they be removed, but I can't get them to do anything. And that's not all. Tom James, the old Slumberdale lawyer, passed away last night. It has come out that you have the controlling interest in Slumberdale. The press sees a major corruption scandal in this. They're going to crucify you.”
“It's not a problem,” I said. “Don't bother trying to get in the back way. I know how to handle this situation.”
“What? You must be kidding. If I drive up at the front we'll be mobbed and you'll likely be torn apart.”
“Stop worrying and just do it.”
Jimmy C fell silent, but I could tell by his frown that he thought I was crazy. In spite of that, he obeyed and we drove slowly up the smoggy road into a hostile mob of local residents and reporters.
Some of them bashed picket signs on the car while others ran forward shouting. My son was up on the lawn addressing the mob through a bullhorn. He had them block us totally, so Jimmy stopped there in the middle of the street and walked around to help me out.
People screamed wildly and clawed at him but he made it to my door. Then police and the press forced their way in and within moments TV cameras were on me.
I told them I wouldn’t speak unless they would amplify my voice so the entire crowd of protesters could hear me. Police moved in to guard me for a few long and chaotic minutes, and then I began to take questions. So many reporters were shouting at me that I again held back and refused to answer. They managed to get organized and City TV came in with the first question.
“Roger, reliable sources have informed us that you're planning to turn Slumberdale into a developer-run casino and red light district? Who are the developers backing this project and why is it being brought in secretly through the back door?”
Putting on my best look of indignation, I faced the cameras and protesters and said, “I don't know where you get your information, but it’s wrong. Slumberdale will not be a den of prostitution, gambling, and organized crime.”
“No gambling?” the stunned reporter said. “Do you really expect us to believe that?”
I prepared to answer, and then I saw a ghost rising to me in the smog. Only then did I realize what I’d been saying and was about to say. The mist flowed into my nostrils and I noticed that my heart had stopped but in some strange way, my blood was flowing. Words came to my mouth like magic and I answered the question. “I don’t expect you to believe me, but over time you’ll see. There won’t be any corruption in the redevelopment of Slumberdale. The detailed report I have in my hand is a plan to refurbish seventy historical sites in the town. There will also be a sports centre, a community center, and several acres of green parkland for the people of Leaside. The entire area will be zoned to keep out heavy industry, freeways, and polluters, and my daughter will be pleased to hear that tenant housing will be included in the new residential mix.”
The reporters and the crowd fell completely silent and stared. My voice had come over the speakers with force, and had left everyone so stunned they were at a loss for words.
A few hecklers started to shout. I saw reporters from the Toronto Star hurrying over for their turn at me. Up in the sky the sun floated in ghostly haze, and at that moment, I felt the power descending … the ghostly power of Slumberdale and its people, filling me and turning me into their politician. Though I had no heart left, I felt a change of heart as waves of compassion swept through me.
I spoke before the reporters could question me, and the crowd fell silent and listened. “Yes, I have a long history and most of it is spotty. But this time I’ve had a change of heart. When I entered politics, my main concern was to deal with those that felt overly entitled and wasted city money. Somewhere along the way, I became worse than my enemies and it put me at odds with many people, including my son, wife and daughter. Today I want to announce that I intend to reconcile with my family, and start doing the good civic things people elected me to do.”
I smiled broadly at the sea of people. Even the hecklers were silenced. Then I lifted my arms in victory. In the distant smog of the horizon, I saw a friendlier ghost rising, and then I caught a glimpse of a new Leaside neighbourhood and residents who cheered.
------ The End ------
Trash.exe Rules the World
© By Gary L Morton
Fatigued, Tomas looked up and found the gentle earth tones of his study room faded to shades of dungeon gray. After hours of tapping away, he had no answer. He'd been on-line so long his eyes felt hard and glassy, spilling occasional tears like he'd become a stiff android that could fake emotion.
He’d learned from the search that Trash.exe didn’t exist as a program, virus, or malware. It didn’t exist at all. Going back to his file manager, he hit the delete button for a file. A message popped up – ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TRASH.EXE TO SELF-REPLICATE AND ADAPT TO NEW ENVIRONMENTS. He clicked okay and as before Trash.exe scanned his system in seconds, duplicated itself and then deleted the previous file it had infected.
Thinking it over, he decided he was going about it the wrong way. Switching back to his browser he typed self-replicating into the advanced search and chose the most comprehensive document, which turned out to be a file posted by an artificial intelligence research lab in Toronto. A science teacher, Professor James Morton intended to create new artificial intelligence by releasing self-replicating programs on the internet. His very optimistic expectations were that they would eventually evolve to new life forms.
Clicking on Trash.exe, Thomas studied the effect. It came up like a screen saver -- a pond of soft light flowed with gentle patterns of flickering colors. It certainly was odd, a display that put the idea of the primordial soup into mind. The flickering played on his eyes and mood, soothing him, giving rise to dreamy thoughts. He leaned back, letting his heavy eyes slowly close -- just a blur of lights, and then he caught something in peripheral vision. Shadows were creeping on the walls. He shot up straight, his vision drawn to the wastebasket. The garbage swirled inside; he was sure he saw a banana peel crawl halfway over the edge before falling back.
Startled, Thomas seized the desk and pushed, rolling his chair back from the computer. Was it madness or was Trash.exe invading his mind and environment? Thoughts of the flickering pained him - if it really was a program designed to evolve on its own, maybe it was taking the next step - keying its info into the human brain, using light signals as the input. What had this nutty Morton guy done? Didn't he know enough to avoid playing with fire? An evolving computer program would be inimical -- a virus that evolved like sharks evolved, by devouring other things.
Thomas thought about phoning the university, and then ruled it out. They'd check his background and it would be game over. He might even be arrested again. His personal history always did him in when it came to dealing with educated people. He'd started his career on the net as a Christian extremist, managing to harass thousands of people at universities and other establishments before his faith faded, leaving him stuck wondering why he’d done it all. Now he was known as a former Christian lunatic and a mad hypochondriac -- a label he found unfair. It certainly wasn't his fault that he was genetically weak and prone to every sort of disease. Sure, he'd been wrong a few times -- like last week when he'd e-mailed the university health centre then jogged down to the lab claiming runaway microorganisms were eating his feet. It turned out to be athlete's foot and not deadly organisms and like always he got a lecture and the blame.
This time he was on to something deadly, there was no doubt about it. Perhaps it had already replicated other similar organisms. Thomas rolled the chair back and typed Trash.com in the search engine, and to his amazement, a page began to open. It was titled Trash.exe's Trash Compactor Page, home of environmentally friendly computer organisms. His breathing got heavy as a graphic of a trashcan appeared. He clicked on it and a mail program popped up. Canceling it, he looked at the list below, which named a number of mirror sites where Trash.exe was available for download. Sweat began to bead on his forehead. He feared the consequences of clicking anything on this page. He hit the view source button and saw that the author of the page code really was Trash.exe itself. “My God,” he said, “it's been done. This lunatic, Professor James Morton, has created runaway computer intelligence. Trash.exe has proven its intelligence by creating its own web and download page.” Going back, he scrolled the page. The design wasn't all that hot, and the graphics Trash.exe used were all stolen from other pages. But it was still a pretty fancy web page, and Thomas knew the purpose of the page -- it was a headquarters, a site hosting a new Frankenstein monster computer intelligence that intended to evolve by spreading trashy replications of itself across the world.
He decided to power down. His system was infected, which meant he'd likely have to destroy it. He rolled his chair back as the hum dropped to silence, then stared in amazement at the pattern still flickering on the monitor. His eyes were so heavy from the long hours he thought that maybe he was seeing patterns where there were none. He tried to clear his thoughts, but found them getting odd -- a moment later muddled pre-dream logic took over and he fell asleep in the chair.
. . . in dreams, Thomas felt dizziness rush in and the feeling shook him with confusion. It was like being a picture fading in and out of lines and distortion. He couldn't quite get a handle on the trembling. In everyday life, Thomas prided himself in being sharp, neat and clean -- a crisp suit, skin always scrubbed pink, a self-image cut to perfect glass. But now his vision was clearing, showing the frayed cuffs of a blackened white shirt.
This dream hit with power and he forgot himself, like an actor that gets involved and thinks the play to be all that exists. It was shocking to find himself ugly, and he knew it would happen again. He turned to the mirror, feeling terror rise in his blood. A tramp Mr. Hyde showed in the glass . . . hair wild, frayed, yellow-gray and unkempt. He had blood-webbed eyes sunk in the ashen craters of a face gone leathery, creased, and tar-stained. He wore a wrinkled white shirt with worn dress trousers that looked all the sillier being held up by shabby suspenders.
Nails in the floorboards penetrated his paper-thin soles as he slowly turned to the window. Horrible odors rose from rotting food in the corners of the room. The sun was a silvery smear behind a shifting wall of gray clouds, but the street looked to be clean. Hobbling over he slid the glass up and took a breath of fresh air. The streets had been scrubbed clean by spring rain -- walls steaming fresh, spotless asphalt and brickwork leading off to a misted rainbow at the centre of town. It was an irresistible sight that sent him out the door, hobbling hurriedly down the rickety stairs, wiping his foul nose in anticipation.
He heard nothing but ghostly echoes of the wind and his footsteps on the way down, and he was thankful for it. Bursting out the door, he took a deep breath, then fell to his knees, choking. He’d swallowed something so bad he felt a squirming fish in his lungs and withering poisons shooting into his blood. It’d been a trick, a ghastly trick -- he looked around, seeing trash spilled everywhere on the cobblestones, and not a soul, unless some of the heaps of old clothing were people.
Thomas stood up, his usually straight back irritatingly stooped. Covering his nose with his ragged sleeve, he began to walk. Rounding the corner, he came to some rusty autos and a view of the avenue. There was no end to the garbage, and he saw rats scurrying on the rubbish heaps. Just the thought of all the germs nearly knocked him down, and in that unsteady moment he became aware of something malevolent watching him. It existed in the garbage, a being or evil force. The thing that had caused this mess. He knew it was ancient; it had always been around - an evil force of filth . . . the unclean thing that nature and God had fought for eternity.
Now it wanted his body and soul. Panic-stricken he began to run. His gait crooked, the mounds of garbage passing above like slow clouds, the cans and swirling paper tripping him up below. Rats squealed, he saw vultures circling and dogs began to howl. Ahead a mound of tar came to life, twisting itself into a giant human form. Like an evil spirit made of rubbish it spread its arms wide and was about to seize him, then he woke up.
The computer screen was blank. He began to rise, but his legs were asleep and he fell forward to the floor. The tingling subsided only to be replaced by a terrible body itch. Thomas got up, scratching his balls like a gorilla. Somehow, the trash in the dream had irritated his skin. His clothes felt suddenly filthy so he took them off and headed for the shower. Grime stained the walls; he'd been too busy to notice how filthy the place was getting. Entertaining thoughts of bringing in a fumigation and cleaning crew, he stepped into the shower.
Showering was a bit of a ritual. Thomas cleaned the stall with hospital disinfectant each morning, and would never step in unless it was spotless. The taps needed a touch of chrome polish, but considering the state of the house, he decided to let it go. A smooth rush of steaming water emerged from the tap, and he waited until it was nearly scalding hot before popping on the showerhead. It was a special massage head that cleaned with power, and he immediately aimed it at his genitals - the area of his body that was usually the most unclean. As the head pounded scalding water on his testicles, he fancied that he was washing old Mr. Hyde down the drain. But not quite, that would really take a brush. Taking down a stiff scrub brush, he went to work. When his genitals had been scrubbed pink, he went to work on the rest of his body. Breaking into song was his method of killing the scrub-brush pain. It had been hymns a while ago. Now he sang old Frank Sinatra tunes. “The summer wind!” he sang as he ripped the brush across his ass.
The garbage strike was endless and Thomas wiped his brow as bright sunlight sent black ghosts skittering across his mind. Old as brass and as hot as a magnifying glass, the sun melted the shadows and revealed the twisted scrunge existing in every corner. He walked down Harbord Street shaking his head. A good shower, a crisp suit, but just step outside and you're ambushed by the filth. The rain and wind … nothing is renewed any more. They only carry the filth, water it down and stain the world with it. Halting, he picked up a Mars Bar wrapper with his cane and flicked it away. As a boy, he'd stepped over every crack. Now he was sure he'd survived because of it. Somewhat satisfied, he watched the wrapper flutter into the gutter, and land right in front of a rat - a stinking fat rat. Furious, Thomas charged, breaking open a fallen garbage bag as a whip of his cane missed the fleeing rodent.
Cheeks reddened, he continued down the street, happy he'd missed and not fouled his cane with rat crap. A mountain of trash was heaped against Angela's board fence, and he saw it like a conspiracy. They knew he was coming and put the trash wherever it would block him. Damn government had promised an end to garbage strikes when they sold the services to the private sector. Now the private companies were union and on strike.
Odors of sweet rot mingled with the fragrance from Angela's lilac hedge. The air was so thick he could've spread garbage honey from it. Homeless tramps were loafing out front of the drugstore, picking about in the trash beneath a giant tampon marquee. A sight so sickening he had to grind his teeth to keep from throwing up. Thomas had once thought cutting people off welfare was a great idea, but now that the streets were filled with the unwashed, he hated the government for doing it.
Jumping the fence at a low spot, he got into Angela's back yard, and found himself looking about a little slice of heaven - a blossoming cherry tree, an apple tree, corner rock garden, lush grass and the lilacs. It all ended at the fence where he could see a curtain of stink heat rising above the boards.
Her house was cottage style, and it looked homey and not out of place among the larger structures. Thomas had lived here once and moving back would be nice if Angela didn't come with the house. He knocked on the door, pondering the situation, remembering that she was still angry about the trouble he'd caused during his days of salvation.
She answered, fresh out of the shower, her honey blond hair blow-dried and her robe clean. It brought a smile to his face and he felt an erection rising as he stepped inside.
“Thomas, I was about to phone. I didn't think you’d go out in this.”
“I've not much choice, do I,” he said as he took out his pocket book. He produced a check. “The alimony,” he said. “Three months, so I'm up to date now. But, er uh,” he cleared his throat.
She snatched the check. “But what . . . but more excuses for next month. Is that it?” She bit her lip, her large eyes and tiny nose giving her the look of an angry doll.
“Well, sort of . . . a terrible thing has happened. I might need money to hire a private eye. There's this university professor, James Morton. He's released deadly trash organisms onto the internet and …”
“The answer is no. No money for more of your crazy conspiracy theories. I don't care if the professor’s little bugs are straight from Hades.”
“They're using screen savers to invade our minds. I'm sure they caused this garbage strike. They sent me dreams of being Mr. Hyde.”
“You're nuts, Thomas. And as far as I'm concerned, Mr. Hyde is what I need. Mr. Hyde would at least know that his wife wants to get screwed once in while.”
“Please, Angela, you make me feel so terrible when you use that word. And the way you want to do it. It's unclean.”
“No money, Thomas. If you want to know about this Morton guy go there and talk to him. And be smart enough to avoid being put away.”
Smoke drifted on the street, fingers of a giant hand formed and it was like a monstrous hand of filth that would molest him when he passed the fence. The bums were drifting south, and a few guys in university computer science jackets were out front of the drugstore. Two of them went inside and the rest walked away. Perhaps they’d know where to find Professor Morton. Thinking it as good a place as any to begin his investigation, he crossed and went inside.
An attempt to be decorative had failed, making the place cheesy. A tiny restaurant area was at the back and the university guys were there ordering. Thomas slid into a booth beside them and picked up a menu. Peeking over it, he studied their behavior, finding them to be classic nerds … pimpled litterbugs, already making a mess with pop and napkins. These were the dipstick propeller heads of yesterday, suddenly made cool by the popularity of sexy pseudo science and the internet. They were naturals for the new Trash.exe army; members of a fraternity that stank with college-boy sweat gathered in close rooms and apartments that were dumps full of candy wrappers, pizza boxes and crumpled notes.
The waitress was young and a pleasant-faced blond, busty and attractive and no doubt these fat brained nerds came here to ogle her. Thomas tipped her as she put down his milk. He took a sip, thinking how much he'd hate it if he saw her on a date with one of the slimy nerd balls. Giving them another glance, he saw one of them spill ketchup on a dirty part of the table, nonchalantly wipe it up with a fry and swallow it.
Thomas grunted then grimaced in disgust. “Looking at something, pal,” the guy said, ketchup foaming at his lips.
“Don't be offended,” Thomas said. “I admire you university boys. I couldn't help but notice your computer science jackets.”
“A loser,” ketchup lips said to his friend, who was likely nicknamed stretch dick or zit ass.
“You got work for us?” Stretch said.
“Ah, no. As it happens, I’ve been reading about the university and Professor Morton’s new life forms. What do you know about this exciting new discovery?”
“Morton,” Stretch said as he took a bite of his hotdog. Then he swallowed and burped loudly. “He's one of my teachers. I can't tell you anything about him. His project is top secret.”
“Secret,” Thomas said. “Well, what would you say if I told you his experiment has gone awry? And that I happen to know that those intelligent bugs of his have built their own web site?”
“I would say that you look like the type of guy who thinks bugs are building their own websites.”
“Wait a second,” ketchup face said. “If this is true, genuine computer intelligence has been created.”
“Not really,” Stretch said. “One of Morton's bugs could've attached itself to a web design program and built a page without being intelligent.”
“You sound skeptical,” Thomas said. “Aren't you afraid of what might happen?”
“Not really. Professor Morton’s idea can't work. He's released his artificial intelligence into a pond that's too big and has no control handles. The internet won't aid it in forming a new kind of intelligence. It's like releasing bacteria in a pond and getting a formation of green scum. There has to be a centre for intelligence, an intelligent life form needs a brain. His critters can't evolve, they can only do freak things. Like create a web page, or screw up some server's software.”
“I'd like to talk to Professor Morton about it,” Thomas said. “Know where I can find him?”
“For some cash I do. But don't tell him I sent you. I want to get more than an F this year.”
Stretch played a couple raunchy tunes on his laptop then the boys got up and left. Thomas pondered Morton and pond scum. He studied the mess the college boys had made -- ketchup, mustard, crumbs, pop, and wrappers. They'd even got coffee stains on his table. Kids today were definitely dirtier. Some kind of bug had already infected them. They were a ready host for new trash intelligence. Once it found a way, it would spread out of control and the whole world would be garbage-strike pond scum.
He watched the waitress bend over to clean the table, her rising dress revealing clean pink skin that soothed his mind. It occurred to him that if Stretch knew the pond scum theory, Morton had to know it too. A fanatic like Professor Morton wouldn't let his plans be blocked by that so what would he do? “Hum,” Thomas thought. “What he'd do is have a human host prepared for the new intelligence.” No one would volunteer for it so that meant he’d probably use himself. That was it - of course . . . Professor Morton intended to open his own brain to them. That was why Trash.exe had been set to use screen saver flashes to code into the human brain. It was possible that Professor Morton was already infected and breeding a new Trash.exe super organism of disease. Thomas' eyes opened wide at the realization, and as they did, the waitress looked back and caught him staring open mouthed at her ass. “Creep,” she said as she carried the tray away.
Red-faced, Thomas put a generous tip down and left, nearly running to the door. He stepped out into blinding sunshine and found himself surrounded by panhandlers. Their appeals for cash might as well have been blows. He ducked back in the entrance, not wanting to be touched by them. He could phone a cab, but that wouldn't get him past the scum. Getting an idea, he hurried to the washroom. He looked approvingly at the clean tile floor then crossed to the window. It opened on a broad alley. He could see dented dumpsters, auto wrecks, trashcans, rotted clothing and the usual muddy carpeting of flattened litter. There were no bums or rats. It appeared to be a clear avenue of escape. Jumping to the sill, he climbed out and dropped, landing in something squishy. Looking down he saw that he was standing in a huge pile of dog crap. As he grimaced, he saw a tramp moving at the far end. Jolted, he took a step, slipped, and banged his head on the side of a dumpster. Then the scene exploded like a rotten melon as he blacked out.
His tongue was thick and sour, feeling foreign like moldy beef instead of flesh. Gloom whirled in his head, and then a lead sky faded in. The air hung heavy, thick with a reek that sealed his lungs . . . atmosphere so oppressive it was like being squeezed in a trash compactor. The tiny bit of light stabbed at his eyes with the power of something unholy.
Blood pounded in his heart, some type of adrenaline rush buzzed through him. Arteries pulsed explosively. The reek of urine and feces aroused him like ether, and then he felt something crawling on his leg.
It moved to his genitals. Releasing a hoarse breath, Thomas tilted his head and watched a dim form shift into focus - a shabby tramp, picking his pocket with one hand and molesting him with the other.
Thomas pushed up and punched him in the face. He groaned and staggered back as Thomas got to his feet. Without hesitation, Thomas charged, seized the man, and threw him into some garbage cans.
Tin clattered, rotten meat and peelings were spilled, the bum rolled, arms flailing. Thomas howled and held his hands up in strangler's pose. Unearthly rage burned in his throat. He saw that his hands were crooked, strong, and grotesque. Muscles and hair bulged from his torn sleeves - he'd become Mr. Hyde again.
Yellow miasma rose from a sewer grate, he saw crumbling bricks and decay, felt rancid water flowing over his toes - the reek of refuse and his hatred of the human refuse, it all added up to strange fury.
He stepped toward the tramp, finding his right leg to be as stiff as wood. It made him growl, irritated that even as Mr. Hyde he was handicapped. Grabbing a heavy bin of trash, he hoisted it and tossed it fifteen feet down the alley. A rat squealed as it crashed, moldy bread hit the wall and stuck. He turned back to the tramp, bloodlust fueling him now. The man was on hands and knees, so he stepped over, picked him up, and bounced him off the brick wall with such force he heard his bones break. Then he watched, huffing quietly as the body tumbled across a heap of discarded tires. It split in the middle - mattress stuffing, straw and marbles popped out, then it turned to red sawdust and collapsed in a heap.
Thomas grunted with satisfaction. Hunger ached in his belly. Smelling pizza he went to a trashcan, lifted the lid and was suddenly blinded by sunbeams.
He awoke in the alley, his head aching, the smell of dog crap and garbage turning his stomach. Brushing himself fiercely, he rose. He had to get the shit off his shoes so he stepped over to an oily puddle. His reflection showed in the water, a purple goose egg by his eye. He grimaced, bothered more by the Hyde dream than anything else. It should’ve been a nightmare, but in it he’d been about to eat garbage and enjoy the act. It was proof that his brain had been infected and it meant that he was deteriorating mentally and would soon be trash or Mr. Hyde. The trash man was a better description. He was becoming a trash man, and Professor Morton's evolving internet bugs were the root cause of it. Somehow, they'd got their pattern of decay into his brain.
Fumbling in his pocket, he found the note with Professor Morton's university address - 548 Madison Way. It was within walking distance so he strolled out of the alley and headed down Sheridan Boulevard in the direction of the campus. The unhealthy environment had worked like disease, wearing him down, his usual snappy walk and erect posture now the shambling gait of a defeated loser. He grimaced as a damp wind rose, the gusts kicking up the lighter debris. Foil, cellophane, yellowed flyers and newsprint slid and flew like colored rain, taking his thoughts back to Trash.exe and his fear of it. As a self-replicating internet entity, Trash.exe couldn't survive as anything meaningful. It definitely wanted to evolve to more than on-line pond scum, so it had to pattern its code into the human brain, using light flashes from screen saver programs. No doubt Morton had arranged it so the most evolved replication of Trash.exe would return to his brain and enter to retrieve implanted instructions. Once in the brain, Trash.exe would be in a hostile environment, always fending off disobedient brain systems that would want to clean it up. Eventually it would have to take a new form and escape.
Chunks of wet cardboard whirled into his eyes; a potato chip bag hit his face and stuck. As he brushed it away, it occurred to him that in the outside world the safest and simplest form for Trash.exe to take was that of real trash - gum wads, wrappers, plastic bottles, discarded personal items . . . things people see as innocuous.
If it were true, if it had already happened, any piece of refuse could be a copy of Trash.exe. An old boot, a cereal box, nearly anything could be a piece of hostile trash intelligence - part of a monster web of neurons in a brain taking over the planet. As a conspiracy, it was the cleverest ever devised. Self-replicating, evolving trash - he chewed on the idea and it brought back a memory of his black sheep brother Jacky, saying, “The world is the junk heap.” Jacky had killed himself with junk - on the needle.
Now the world really was the junk heap; Mr. Hyde's junk heap and trash was appearing everywhere. Professor Morton's sloppy hopes of getting in Nature or winning a Nobel Prize had killed the planet. It was all but over now, and not only had the dream gone sour, it was garbage that stank like hell. The only hope left was that he might be able to confront Morton and reverse the process.
Morton's building turned out to be an eight-story concrete structure with neat rows of windows in embossed vertical slits. It had a few marble faces and some decorative sculpture. Mainly it was a product of the functional fortress style of architecture. A style that brought budget cuts to mind. Thomas preferred memories, nostalgia - the ivied towers and quads of yesteryear.
The building did have grounds but would have been more attractive without them. Rather than mowed lawns, flowerbeds and bushes, it had fields of colored stones and sickly evergreen scrub.
Fields of stones are at their most appealing during garbage strikes, so much so that only a few patches of colored gravel still showed. Trash dunes covered most of the area; the garbage rotting and releasing smelly hydrocarbons. Waves of potent gas rose, blurring the higher ledges like heat distortion. Gulls wheeled through the oily smoke from the incinerator chimney, and a few hundred more were perched on the dunes.
Thomas' eyes went from the stack down to the rows of sawhorses holding the trash back from the walks at the front and side of the building. A few men in drab navy uniforms and a security guard were near the entrance. Placing his hands on his hips, he pursed his lips. His expression soured. This place was more like the guard tower of a new city dump. The smoke from the incinerator was probably from animal corpses those crazy professors were burning. Visiting Morton wasn't going to be fun or at all appetizing.
Shivering with revulsion, he concluded that entering at the front wasn't a good idea. Security would stop him and they might refuse him entry. Following the perimeter of the dunes, he got to the side of the building, jumped a sawhorse, pushed aside some evergreen scrub, and walked toward the rear. The lower windows were all barred so there was no way he could break in. Cupping his hands, he looked in at eye level and saw lab equipment and a dead rabbit on its back on a table. Dogs snarled, Thomas jumped back, and then realized the sound had come from the rear.
It wasn't a good omen. He took quiet footsteps to the back. A fence topped with barbwire protected the back parking lot, but few cars were parked in it. The dogs were louder now, their barking dangerously vicious. A quick glance showed three stray dogs beneath a guard post. Two guards were inside, under siege from the dogs.
Moving behind a mound of stones, Thomas got a better look. Two huge mongrels and a shepherd had the guards at bay. Red-eyed, frothing, and rabid the beasts leapt at the Plexiglas, nearly knocking it out with the force of their blows.
Keeping down, he thought it over, guessing the rear to be another dead end. There was a storage door, but it required magnetic access, and if he went for it, he'd get his butt chewed while the guards watched from the safety of the booth. He couldn't give up so he waited then took another look, seeing a slot in the guards' access window open. The snarling shepherd muzzled up to it - and exploded. Thomas saw the head pop – like a Roman candle, leaving a torn neck stump spilling crimson as the quivering body fell to the stones. “Hollow-point bullet,” Thomas muttered, completely sickened as he watched the other two mongrels howl and flee, blood dripping from their coats as they leapt the fence to the garbage heaps.
The dogs didn't return and the guards never left the safety of the post. “Cowards,” Thomas thought, “can't even clean up their own mess.” Bushes rustled to his rear. Spinning to look, he saw one of the dogs creeping up on him. The beast stared, whined and whimpered. Snapping his fingers, Thomas drew it to him and it rubbed his legs then sat as he scratched its head. It didn't appear rabid now, and that meant that animals could sniff out the infected. He'd suspected it from the first moment; the guards and likely everyone else in the building had been contaminated by Professor Morton and an advanced version of Trash.exe.
“This calls for strategy,” he thought, and a moment later, he had a plan. He picked up a stick and threw it, sending the dog into the bushes to fetch it, and then he ran out, waving as he headed for the guard post. A whip thin, gray-haired guard trained a Glock on him, but he lowered it, confused by Thomas' distressed approach.
Thomas pounded on the safety window. “Let me in quick! The dogs are coming!”
They saw the dog running for him and opened up immediately. A burly, fat-faced guard pulled him in and slammed the door. “Got ID?” the guard said.
“No, I've been robbed,” Thomas said. “Tramps got me and put the dogs on me. I'm a friend of Professor Morton's. I have to see him. It's important news.”
“It's okay, Joe,” the thin guard said, “so long as he's a friend of the Professor.”
“Oh-oh, here come the dogs,” Thomas said, wiping his brow. “Shit, there are three of them now.”
“Bastard animals,” said the thin guard. “They've gone so loco we can't kill them fast enough. I better shoot before that big one breaks the window.”
“Watch you don't shoot it out,” his partner said.
“I have a better idea,” Thomas said. “I'm a crack shot. I was a sniper in the forces. Give me the gun. I can open the door real fast and pick the devils off.”
The guards looked at each other and nodded. “Okay, we'll try it,” Joe said.
Thomas took the Glock and motioned for them to keep back. He watched as they got tight to the wall, then he flung the door open and rolled out, the dogs tearing over and past him as he hit the dirt. As he expected, they didn't go for him, but went straight for the guards - turning the booth into a screamer's butcher-shop . . . the guards yowling like a couple more crazy dogs as they went down.
Getting to his feet, he dusted himself off. He suddenly realized he'd forgot about the access card. He could hear the dogs ripping at the corpses and likely chewing the card. Walking up to the service door, he fired a shot at the lock. It winged back into the gun, the force nearly spraining his wrist. “Bulletproof, damn,” he muttered. There was one other option. Biting his lip, he moved a pile of the garbage bags that'd spilled over the fence with the leaping dogs, leaving them against the guard post. Dashing up them, he jumped, caught the ledge, and swung up. Another hop and he was looking in a second floor window. Darkness was all he could see so he kicked out the glass and stepped in fanning the gun.
His eyes adjusted to the florescent gloom. This was an empty lab - gray gunmetal cabinets and desks, a computer with a bank of dials. A flat screen hung on the wall.
Nothing really stood out, and then white flashed in the corner of his eye - a rabbit running on the sill. He aimed, took a step toward it, and nearly jumped out of his skin. A body was slumped on the desk in front of him. Painful throbbing in his sore hand stopped him from pulling the trigger, then the odor hit him and he choked. It was a rank corpse; he tapped its shoulder with the gun and it moved, causing the chair to creak. It rocked then collapsed, throwing the body backward to the floor.
The face was female, the neck torn open and the gashed flesh swollen to a giant welt. His eyes flashed back to the rabbit and he saw blood on its fur. Without a doubt, it had ripped the woman's throat out. Its present timidity meant that he wasn't in as advanced a state of infection as the woman, or more likely, he was infected by a more benign replication of Trash.exe that animals didn't detect.
Professor Morton's version would be the one on the loose here, and it’d likely caught everyone by surprise. Clearly, Morton had moved his office here for security and maybe the chance to do some illegal experiments on animals. But he couldn't have known that animals would turn on his new intelligence.
His eyes drifted back to the corpse. If Professor Morton's superior form could get killed off by mad animals, maybe it was possible to exterminate all varieties of Trash.exe. This woman's corpse could be bagged and studied.
He wondered where he could get a bag or blanket, and then he noticed something moving in the corpse's throat. Folds of rot parted in the welt and something yellow appeared, moving like a slimy insect, cutting its way with a mandible. Caked blood crumbled, he saw letters on its back. “Holy shit, its back is a chocolate bar wrapper,” he said, then his hand began trembling uncontrollably and he opened fire, the shots flying wild as he emptied the entire clip.
The entire head and upper body of the corpse splattered and the trash bug flew to the ceiling and then dropped to the floor. He'd missed it of course and the thing was now crawling towards his foot. Dropping the gun, he turned and ran.
Crashing through the stairwell doors, terror lifting his hair, he realized that it was too late. There was no use even looking for Professor Morton. It had really been over when the genie got out of the bottle. Insanity swept his mind, like maybe he could survive by escaping into the bowels of the earth. Stumbling, staggering, he ran down and burst through a door into basement 3, the lowest level - the incinerator room.
The level was enormous, like a gloomy cavern. He came to a halt, leaned against a concrete post, and caught his breath. Faint odors of smoke and corpses and the hissing of the furnace caught his attention. The furnace base of the huge stack stood on the far side of the room. Thomas passed another post, drawn by the heat. Then he saw someone sitting in the shadows and heard paper rustling.
Slow careful steps took him to the man and his eyes began to adjust to the bluish florescent light. The chest rose and fell, so it wasn't a corpse. Then the face came clear and Thomas knew it was Professor Morton. The man's eyes were gone, pouring with blood lava. His ears also bled and that meant that beyond a doubt Trash.exe had exited his brain, leaving him nothing but a vegetable.
“You've really done it now, you madman,” Thomas said. And he became as surprised as he was angry when Professor Morton lifted his face to him, appearing to hear.
“Ah, Thomas, you're here,” the Professor said. “Your wife called. She told me to call the police if you get violent. She thinks you're mad, Thomas.”
Rage boiled in Thomas' brain. It infuriated him that even his wife had betrayed him. The professor was giggling like a lunatic now, and it was more than he could bear. He lifted his hands and firmed them to claws. “You monster, I'll kill you,” he said. Then he heard his shirt rip. He saw his chest expand to barrel size and his arms grow muscled and hairy. Behind Morton, a chute suddenly opened and yellow wrappers began pour down. After that, Thomas' vision went red and he saw no more.
Some people believe the world will end with a bang. And the poet said not a bang but a whimper. But there has to be order, even in decay and the end. So the world began its ending with Thomas, or was it Mr. Hyde? Howling like a devil, running down an alley, banging the dumpsters with his fists, the baying pack following at his heels. Overhead, two million gulls wheeled and began an angry swoop toward city hall. In other alleys the trash rustled, popped bags, bins and can lids and rolled in waves, pouring for the main streets as it itched for life and fresh blood. At police headquarters, the chief wondered why his men were watching strange patterns, and then he saw his computer screen start to bleed. Professor Morton laughed his last mad laugh and fell dead on the floor as thousands of Trash.exe chocolate bar wrappers fluttered up the incinerator chimney and floated off on the wind.
---The End ---
The Faceless One
© By Gary L Morton
Rusty pictured death as a typhoon. It was a great power that could wipe out every trace of his miserable existence. When he was a child and a good life was as certain as his dreams, death was an enemy. Now death appeared as a friend, but an illusive friend constantly escaping him. On every street and alley, he could see the Reaper ahead, his cloak of bones and decay fluttering as he fled around a distant corner.
Glancing around the cluttered shack he called home, he figured he could just as well be looking at the mess in his own head. Rusty knew he was disturbed, a misfit - he had that power of reflection. His self-image wasn't distorted; it was like truth he couldn't escape. A shambling loner, wherever he worked he would eventually be fired. People just didn't like him and it just wasn't fair. With women the hitch was that he was a total fickle, and few women cared for him, especially not after they learned of his bizarre sexual preferences. His gay lovers quickly learned to hate him even more. He wasn't really dangerous, and although he preferred dirtier words, weirdo was the term most often used when it came to him. So what could he do? The things that got him off weren't things he'd wished for; he was just sort of stuck with them.
A brief and twisted idea emerged and then suddenly vanished as Rusty realized that today was money day. His employment insurance payment was already on the wire, popping directly into his account. He booted a pizza box aside and for some strange reason he saw the bank computer staring at him with beady eyes. Nasty thoughts possessed him and he felt his blood boil as he walked to the back door. Swinging it open, he clenched his fist and shook it, thinking that this time he wouldn't fail - by God! He'd have just enough money to kill himself.
When the brightness of the sun cleared, he saw through blood haze and realized he was shaking his fist at a little girl skipping on the beaten earth of his back yard. He shook his knuckles with even more fury, “Get out of here you little brat! I'm the bad man!” A grimace bit his face as she thumbed her nose at him and ran away. Funny, the way her eyes are so tiny and beady, he thought as he watched her bolt through a space in the fence.
Out on the street he walked to the bank with some plans hatching in his head. It was a beautiful summer day, but his mind was like a bloodshot eye that hurt in the light. Rollerblades in the window of the Fabulous Sports Shop were the first thing he really noticed. It would be nice to roll over to one of those steep hills in Rosedale and then speed skate down to the highway. By the time the traffic finished with him he'd look like a carcass thrown from a meat wagon. It was a nice thought but the chances of survival were too good, and he didn't want to end up in one of those new wheelchairs that wipe your drool and spoon-feed you as you roll along.
He envisioned a Smith and Wesson revolver, and then got angry with himself. He'd tried to buy a gun but couldn't meet the license requirements. “Damn new laws, they're screwing us all!” he said to a telephone pole as a misfit-hating businessman tiptoed across the road to avoid him. He'd also tried to buy a hot piece, only some slick black dudes up on Jane Street had sold him a replica. To make matters worse, some other guys had surprised him while he was in an alley trying to figure out why the replica didn't work. He'd hoped they'd cut his throat and leave him to die like a dog. Instead, a gang leader with a lower lip as big as a trout had nailed him in the balls. Rusty wished his wallet had been a replica.
Drowning, now drowning was something else. He stopped in his tracks. It hadn't worked before because he always went down to the river and hopped off the bridge. Then a panic response would cause him to swim to shore. What if he rented a boat and motored out a ways? Naw, he thought with a shake of his head. Too much room for failure there, and if it was possible to fail, he would do so. He didn't like the idea of his life flashing before him either - he was trying escape it not relive it.
Beady eyes again, staring down from a maple tree. He halted; they made him think of little black pills. Cutting through the park, he thought of drugs he could overdose on. The little black pills he'd taken last time were out, since all they'd done was turn him into a zombie for three days - and give him pneumonia. He winced as he recalled the jabbing pains in his chest. Drugs were only an option if he was sure they'd kill him fast and clean, and with his high tolerance - rat poison only gave him diarrhea - to everything, they weren't the best option.
Gas was out. He'd already turned a pal's house into a pile of splinters with gas. Who would expect the mailman to come and press the doorbell while the place was filling up with gas? Rusty had been returning from the ZIPSHOP with matches when he saw the roof blow and come in for a landing on the house next door. What really changed his mind concerning gas was the sight of the mailman's head bouncing up the sidewalk. Gas was too messy. It was for slobs and litterbugs, and there were a lot of slobs - guys who made sure they left their brains dripping from the walls. There was even the jerk that jumped from a skyscraper and went through the glass roof of a shopping mall. There are ways of saying good-bye, and coming through a high roof as a rain of blood, glass, sausage bits, giblets, chickens quarters and cubed beef tongue isn't one of those ways.
Inspiration was drying up, but he could see the bank machine and he was sure a handful of bills would also be a handful of ideas. The machine looked lonely and abandoned, attached to the side of a gas station like a growth of plastic junk. A robot corpse and he wished it was a spitting maw of doom instead of a money dispenser. Sinister, that's what it is, he thought, trying to imagine something sinister about it as he stepped lightly across the street. At least it's as sinister as a JANE CA$H machine can be.
The tinted window was down and he saw his own desperate face staring back at him as he took out his card. Stepping sideways, he checked his profile as he slipped the card in the slot. He always looked so much better in profile; if only he could stand sideways when he talked to people, he'd feel cool instead of lousy.
The plastic window slid up and he found his profile replaced by two beady eyes. He jumped back as if from a rattler, then he cautiously stepped back up. Disbelief made him light-headed. Instead of the usual instructions, two eyes were in the slot. They were textured like black marbles and had an intense shine.
He stuck a finger in to poke an eye.
“Don't touch,” said an intelligent and very human voice.
“Who are you?”
“I'm the devil.”
Rusty's eyes were rather flat to begin with and now they went as dull as fried eggs. His face soured like he'd seen a roach skitter across his plate. “This is a trick. I know the devil isn't a machine. You better choke out some money or else.”
“Please pay up the interest on your credit card, sir, or I'll punch your teeth out.”
“So, the dirty, rotten bank is behind this.”
No sooner had Rusty spoken than fifty-dollar bills began to shower out of the slot. Moving swiftly he pocketed the wad, then he glanced around.
“See, I don't work for the bank. I'm a robber.”
“I thought you were the devil?”
“I don't want people to believe in me. Actually, I'm called the faceless one. You are destined to be the eyeless one. Today I'm wearing this bank machine for a face. I'd much appreciate it if you would help me get a new face?”
“I can't. I'll be killing myself today, and I really don't know how to help.”
“Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Help me and I'll help you die?”
“Okay, but how?”
“Take me out of the machine and put me in your pocket. We can talk more later.”
Rusty plucked the eyeballs from the slot. Now that he took a close look, he could see they were very old. Almost like real eyes that had blackened and petrified. He figured he'd struck a poisonous jackpot so he stuck them in his pocket as carefully as he would pearls.
Walking back across the street, he saw his pal Steve coming around the corner. Steve had a bounce to his step so that he seemed to be walking on air or climbing a ladder. His cheeks were sunken and he had a forehead full of moon craters. Rusty had chummed around with him in high school. He figured Steve to be the sort who wasn't bright enough to kill himself.
“Listen,” Steve threw an arm around him. “Ever thought of robbing a grocery store or maybe even a bank?”
“Nope, but I'm looking for a gun if you got one.”
“I have a replica, but forget that for now; let's talk hold-up. A supermarket heist would be easy, but I guess you've never had the guts to do business with real crime.”
“Don't bet on it. I'm gonna commit the big M today.”
“Who is this insect you're terminating?”
“You are uncool, very uncool.”
“Yeah, I'll show you something cool.”
“Okay, hit me with it.”
“It's not an it. It's a who.”
“All right. Who?”
“The faceless one, here he is,” Rusty said, pulling the eyes from his pocket. Than he blinked as no eyes were there. He was holding two black marbles.”
“The faceless one. Right. Listen, Rusty, kill yourself right away, just for me.”
As soon as Steve stepped away, the marbles became morbid eyes. “Gasoline,” said the faceless one. “You need a big can of gasoline. Now don't ask questions, just do it - believe me, you'll see death and love dying.”
As it happened, Rusty had a large gas can among the rubbish in his back yard. He judged it suitable and took it to the station. The faceless one is a genius, he thought on the way back. But if he thinks I'm gonna set myself on fire he's also crazy. Curiosity got the better of him and he took out the eyes. They were brighter now, with a shine almost like a bluebottle fly.
“I know all about fire,” Rusty said. “If I light myself up and live I could end up screaming in pain for weeks before I die.”
“What you do is set fire to some old carpets. The smoke will be lethal poison that'll kill you quick and painlessly.”
Rusty jammed the eyes back in his pocket. Ahead, through a hole in the fence, he saw the little blond girl playing among the rubbish in his back yard. Setting down the gas can, he picked up a stone and winged it off a rusty hubcap by her feet. She took off and ran behind a pile of old bricks and shingles. He didn't bother to pursue her, but instead cut through and opened the padlock. There was a bong as a stone struck the gas can. Turning, he saw the girl duck and run behind the fence.
Smartass kid, he thought as he went inside. An idea came to him and he went straight to the couch and sat down. Why not forget helping the faceless one and just asphyxiate myself and get it over with - yeah, why not? As he got up to pile some carpets in the center of the room, he noticed a leak in the gas can where the stone had struck. Checking the contents with a slosh, he found that a good bit of gas had already leaked out. Quickly, he carried it back out to the yard and plugged the hole with a piece of rag.
Back inside he decided to have a last cigarette. A Lucky Strike. But when he tried lighting the smoke, he wasn't lucky. The matches were damp. After three or four broke, one fizzed and went out. Frustrated he snapped one hard on the emery paper. It lit but the head flew off and landed in spilled gasoline. The gas ignited and flames poofed and followed a line across the room and out the door to the can. To his horror, he could see the little girl standing out there, preparing to toss a stone.
It was a stone that was never thrown. The gas can burst into a sheet of flame and engulfed her. Thinking to help her, he snatched up a blanket and ran through the flames. She was already a human torch, but when the blanket went around her, she became a fireball. He hadn't noticed that the blanket was gas soaked.
Staggering clear, Rusty beat out the fire on his clothes. It was too late to save the girl; she'd died before she could even scream. He grabbed a mat and went to work beating out the flames in the house. When he stepped back outside again her smoking corpse was crumpled beside his old rusted-out Ford.
Grabbing the feet, he dragged the body into the house, burning his hands on her melted shoes in the process. Since it was a flash fire, he figured no one had noticed, or if they had, thought it was a controlled bonfire. It dawned on him that he'd put the fire out when he could've inhaled the fumes. Goddamn, he muttered, wondering why he always did the wrong thing.
After locking the doors, he dragged the body into the bedroom and closed the curtains. The little girl hardly looked human at all. The burlap blanket was burned to her in such a way that she resembled a charred fire log. Only her head and feet protruded at the ends. Her face was hideous, the mouth forced open by a tongue like a big scraping from the bottom of someone's oven. Two holes running with thickening lava were her eyes, and she had only a blistered lump for a nose. Some of her hair hadn't burned, although now it was scorched and smoke colored.
This was big trouble; if the cops were to come, they'd call it murder. He'd be ruled insane and put in a place without even a belt to hang himself. He wept, feeling like he really had gone mad. The thought of people discovering that he'd fried a little kid was unbearable. His photo would probably appear next to the killer clown in the crime flashbacks. And what about the trial, all those shrinks and lawyers pretending to be on your side while they really felt you should be disemboweled. Questions, sweat and endless interviews; you had to be long-winded to answer to justice, and they would never let you die.
Hanging his head got tiring. Maybe the faceless one had an answer. A way to kill himself fast. He took out the eyes, and found their stare to be both morbid and fierce. “You tried to cheat me,” the faceless one said. “I'll make you pay.”
From a wicked stare to a hypnotic gleam, Rusty saw tiny windows grow in the pupils. A vision took him, thoughts of suicide vanished, drums pounded in a rain forest, a beat of the blood, hot as an eruption from a molten god. There were bubbles in a cauldron that resembled the faceless one's eyes, and silver began to flash and take form. Finally, he was looking down, watching himself take a knife out of the cutlery drawer in the kitchen.
His eyes belonged to the faceless one; they were evil and intense. Blood thick as strawberry syrup oozed as he cut the corpse's head off. His face became lined, his neck muscles corded as he strained on the blade. Once the head was free, he sat in an armchair, cradling it in his lap. Two burning eyes were all he seemed to be.
Soon he knew it was time and he got out a sharp fruit knife. With deep and precise cuts, he removed the scorched skin and scalp. The skull and the rest of the body he wrapped up for burning in an old carpet.
Taking a sturdy needle from a wooden box on his dresser, he prepared to sew the lips. Using pins, he held them everted while he sliced some leather fringes off an old coat. With fishing line for thread, he stitched the headskin up, and then he sewed the leather through the lips.
Now it was time to boil the headskin. Holding it over the pot, he muttered some verses of a heathen incantation. The water bubbled red when he plopped the skin in . . . some parsley and spice served for seasoning.
After an hour of cooking, he used tongs to remove the headskin and dried it with a towel. Taking out a jar of honey, he combed some through the sparse hair, and then he hung the headskin on a rusty nail on the door.
Out back, he built a small fire, making sure to place some large stones on the blaze. His eyes were arsonist wild. He watched until the fire smoldered out, then he took down the skin. Using a small spade, he carefully filled it with hot sand and stones. He set it upright on a plank and in time, it began to shrink. Stones and the sand were forced out at the neck. Rusty had taken care to arrange the remains of the hair so that it hardened neatly into gruesome place.
Darkness had fallen and now the moon looked on with the faceless one as Rusty built a bonfire and burned the carpet-wrapped body. Using a hook and chain, he hung the head over the fire to smoke it. At midnight, when only ashes remained, he took the shrunken head inside and placed the faceless one's eyes in the empty sockets. Then he touched it over and hardened it with resin. For a final touch, he polished it and sealed it in a large gleaming jar.
He was in his rocking chair when he came back to himself, and he stared in horror at the hideous creation in the jar on his lap. So the faceless one really was some kind of devil, and he'd arranged the girl's death in order to come back as a shrunken head. It caused his heart to sink; he didn't like the idea of devils being real. They would put him in torment when he succeeded at suicide, or at least they would if he was stupid enough to die with one in his lap. He decided that disposing of the faceless one would be a wise move.
Dirt was baked on his hands and his skin crawled with invisible maggots so he put the faceless one on the coffee table while he showered and shaved. It did no good, his stomach was sour and weak and a soup of sickness swam before his eyes. Bugs seemed to be eating at his back and he ground his teeth as he put on a red T-shirt and jeans. After scrubbing his hands raw and red he gave up, figuring his state of the creeps was an emanation from the faceless one.
Rusty's logic had never been good, but his thoughts were clear enough to tell him that an evil being like the faceless one would have plans that didn't include him as a long-term partner. He was just an instrument, some idle hands that had been used. His hair began to rise and he felt hackles lifting on the back of his neck. Insects crawling on him, his breath like garbage cans; the faceless one had to be turning him into a zombie slave. Zombies and shrunken heads go hand-in-hand he figured. That's what he must be up to.
He grabbed the jar. The eyes were glowing softly, like Mars, and the face was absurdly hideous. “Okay faceless one, you got even. So what's this you're doing now?”
The gruesome lips didn't move but the faceless one spoke. “You want to be dead so now you feel like a rotting corpse.”
“That's not dead. That's the living dead. Take the feeling away.”
“Okay, listen. I've decided to drown myself. Want to come down to the river with me? You can watch me jump.”
“Why jump. I can make you feel like a bloated corpse now.”
Rusty held up his hands, and though they looked normal, he could feel his fingers swelling and popping. His testicles blew up to balloons and split grossly. Gas began to hiss from holes all over his body. A monstrous slab of rotten meat was in his throat. Wet things were swinging from a gash in his belly. Even his eyes were swelling. The worst pain came from the worms he could feel chowing down on his back.
“I want to die, not feel like a corpse.”
“But what's death other than feeling like corruption forever?”
“I'll say a prayer before I die so I'll feel good.”
“Say any prayers around me and I'll make you feel like a bucket of maggots.”
“I don't know any prayers, so don’t worry.”
To be practical Rusty took a covering from an old birdcage and draped it over the faceless one before going out. Although he felt somewhat better, his feet still smacked the pavement like dead meat. The moon was full and the night had graveyard airs. No sooner had he got to the corner than a police cruiser appeared and began to crawl alongside him. Sweat appeared instantly and beaded his brow, then the cruiser's sparklers began to spit hellfire and it sped off.
“That was close,” he said, stopping and peaking at the faceless one.
“Fancy that. They think just like you.”
“They were thinking of throwing you in the river.”
“Why are the good guys rotten?”
“Boy, are you stupid. Power leads to arrogance and corruption.”
Deciding it would be better to stay off the streets, Rusty cut through a long park that stretched over to the banks of the river. Usually there were more muggers than trees and he didn't want trouble. He took the cover off the faceless one so the sight would scare off any creeps.
Shambling along feeling like a swamp thing, he made his way over the rolling turf, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on the dark arch of a bridge and a glittering ribbon of water. As he grew close to the rush of water and spray, willow trees overshadowed him, their dark shapes creating a tidal wave of death and dark night that was soothing. He never would've imagined that feeling like a corpse would give him insight. Yet he had an awareness of all men as corpses. Life was a flash of brilliance few people experienced. Even the faceless one, when he turned mortals into shrunken heads, was trying to be alive, to break out of the numb ritual of death and darkness and glimpse the flash.
Shades of anger began to lighten his step; the corpse cloak of the faceless one was melting in the moonlight. He found himself hating the dead, too much of the world was dead, and as he walked up the footbridge his eyes were alive with madness.
He set the jar on the wall. Directly below a fast piece of river spat foam. He watched it bubble, knowing why he'd chosen suicide. It wasn't that he was trying to find the darkness; he was trying to find the light. Except for a few happy days, he'd always been dead, and he wanted to escape. Suicide was the manifestation of an inner truth.
He looked to the faceless one. The eyes were bright, but this time with fear. “So you want to watch me die!” Rusty said, seizing his moment of revenge. “Then watch from the rocks!”
He swept the jar up and tossed it in one smooth motion. It tumbled toward the water, a bright soap bubble in the moonlight. Rusty never saw the splash; his eyes caught fire, shooting stars of pain, and he gouged the embers of it out. Then he was aware of floating darkness and death as he fell to the water.
A reflection of clouds and the summer day almost hid Rusty from view. But he was there, rocking in his chair with his hands in his lap. His face was to the window, but he wasn't aware of the world outside.
It was lunchtime on the grounds and one of the younger psychiatrists looked up, getting a clear view from his place at the picnic table. He turned to his mentor, a rather sophisticated older man with salt-and-pepper hair. “He believes he's a corpse, and though he put his eyes out he sees a hellish world he can describe in vivid detail.”
“Yes,” the older man said. “I studied his case, and the strangest part is what happened to the man that rescued him.”
“What was that?”
“After he pulled him ashore he lost his mind. He's in a padded cell. He screams a lot, mostly about a disembodied head he thinks is staring at him.”
© By Gary L Morton
A refreshing chill came with the late autumn breeze. The sun set in angelic bands of ginger behind Shady Meadows. Jeff gazed out his window, watching crisp red maple leaves float on the light breeze. They landed silently, creating soft mounds on the groomed front lawn.
Occasionally he would hear a truck engine or distant passenger train passing the subdivision, but the community was empty. All of the people had abandoned this isolated pseudo village. Some willingly, though broken. Many others had left under the guns of the sheriff … foreclosed on by banks, having hung on until the end … with nowhere to go … tossed out of houses with no resale value. Jeff knew there was a shantytown down in Wildfire Valley, but he’d never worked up the courage to walk down and talk to his old neighbors. It was an idea that haunted him; he refused to end up there … this was a fight to the end … and perhaps the end had come.
No one had expected such a miserable conclusion to the American Dream. In the past housing prices had risen steadily across the nation. A home used to be a guaranteed investment. Now a man’s castle was his sinkhole as high mortgage payments, prices and negative equity brought the roof down.
Jeff was just another guy caught in the quicksand.
Most of his life he’d been a tenant. Sleazy places in the city where kids pissed in the hallways … three horrible divorces from unfaithful shrews. Children he couldn’t visit … a world gone wrong. Then came the great escape … after hurricane Katrina the President changed the rules. Before long, the big banks were giving everyone a home. You could buy a house with no money down, no income, no job, and no assets … at one percent interest. And that’s how Jeff bought his home and escaped the city for Shady Meadows.
Just after the move a union factory job came in … he was a man with his big friendly dog, escaping into quiet neo rural life.
The whole deal seemed too good to be true … he’d always felt that way deep inside. Then the manure hit the meadow breezes. His job ended in termination … as the factory joined many others in off shoring production to China. He became one of millions of people who lost out due to unregulated globalization, and like them, he became a number on the unemployment files.
His lifestyle became as bland as chewing on food stamps, but he had some money saved and invested. If it got worse, he could flip the house and use the gain to buy another. Then the markets collapsed in the credit crunch … his home lost value and like many others, he finally got around to reading the fine print in his mortgage papers. An ARMs deal, adjustable rate, meaning that this year and the next his payments would rise at an incredible rate. He couldn’t pay those rates. Nobody could. Then the markets sank even more and his investment portfolio became worthless.
Around that time, the neighbors started to disappear. Jeff investigated and was shocked at what he found. People wanting a home and a quiet community didn’t populate Shady Meadows or many other small places. Many of these fakers were flippers … buying houses … fixing them up, running up some bills at Home Depot and then selling for a profit as they moved on to the next home and deal.
They were gone now as were the factory workers. Jeff had no friends left, no job, and his dog Zero had been shot by the sheriff during the eviction of the Montero family next door.
He couldn’t go back to the old life … not at his age. And most Americans were aging like him. He’d be single, struggling with low wage part time jobs, for the glorious privilege of a drab apartment and empty nights watching the tube. He couldn’t go back so he was standing on a kitchen chair with a carefully constructed noose around his neck as he watched the last leaves fall.
Then … god damn it … his eyes flicked to the TV screen. Why in the hell hadn’t he turned it off? Even worse, it was a show on the foreclosure crisis … and super rich Donald Trump was tossing out his combed-back opinion to a talking head with a lacquer perm. “When you're in a hole, keep digging as hard and as fast as you can,” Trump said. “Don’t let the foreclosure happen. Go back and make another deal with whoever holds the mortgage. If you work at it, they’ll give you a better deal. Believe me, the last thing the bank wants is your house. What can they do with it? They can't find anybody to buy it right now. It’s to their advantage to have you pay, even if it is much less than the original deal.”
Jeff felt thick hairs rising on the back of his neck. His house, it was all he wanted. “Damn it, I’ll do it,” he muttered. “I’ll renegotiate and they’ll have to deal.”
Determination set in the lines on his jaw, but in spite of that he slipped on the chair and the autumn sunset turned to blinding silver spots and a final black curtain as the noose bit in hard.
Jim Paulison was at the wheel of his Cadillac when the odious voice came again. “I want to renegotiate the ARMs deal, and you’re going to help or else.” This time it was on his cell phone and it disturbed him so much his hand slipped on the wheel as he yelled, “Or else what!”
Jim’s eyes popped as he watched a speeding cube mail van head straight for him while hearing the voice say, “Or else, you pay my price!”
He turned hard, back into his lane, then pulled off on a side street and parked at the curb. Bitterness showed on his thin lips … he watched dusty litter blow like ghosts up the gloomy road, then Don answered at the bank. Jim sighed, and began to bellow and threaten. Someone was definitely going to be terminated for giving that lunatic his cell number.
Don answered calmly. “I don’t know how he does it. He’s been phoning everyone at our bank. Says he’s been foreclosed on and wants to renegotiate. The whole thing is spooky. We called the police and they said the number we traced belongs to a dead guy. That line has been disconnected. Maybe I should look up our files on this jerk so I can talk to him personally and get rid of him.”
Paulison ran his hand through his thinning gray hair. “Do that. Just find him and erase him,” he said, and then he hung up.
Thirty minutes later Paulison was home and looking in his mirror. Sadly, he looked every bit the caricature of an evil banker … the well-worn suit, sparse gray hair, small potbelly and cruel blue lips. The hair transplant and laser work had done little for his face. The worry lines had been too deep to erase, the dark guilt sacks on his eyes of a mountainous magnitude. He looked evil because he was evil, but in spite of it he smiled, then he heard his ring tone.
It was Don calling back. “I’ve traced him and wow is this creep clever.”
“Give me the dope on him.”
“The dope is that we’re dopes. Jeff Connors is another one of those guys we never should have lent to … but of course, we did in order to repackage and sell his debt. At least that was the idea, but it didn’t happen…”
“Could you get to the fucking point here!”
“He lives in Shady Meadows.”
“Are you crazy, that’s a ghost town. We cleared the whole thing out with foreclosures. We have camera surveillance on the area to make sure squatters from the valley don’t move in or strip everything from the houses … no one lives there. That I know.”
“Well, the thing with Jeff Connors is that he hung himself. The body was taken out and the sheriff never arrived to move him out.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“Fraud. He obviously faked his own death because the calls are coming from there and he’s still living there. He’s the lone resident of Shady Meadows. Ridiculously, he wants to talk to you to renegotiate his mortgage.”
“It’s a simple matter. Call the police. Have him arrested. Multiple charges. Maybe everything from fraud to terrorism.”
“Not that simple. The police won’t even go there. It appears Shady Meadows is not paying for policing, and their records show that Connors is dead.”
“Shit. Never mind then. I’ll take care of it personally.”
“You mean you’re going to negotiate with this nut?”
“No. I mean get rid of him. First I want to check the camera surveillance, then I’ll go in and deal with him.”
Jim Paulison’s refurbished luxury Cadillac drove speedily through a heavy fall of autumn leaves, a fast camera replay showing on his screen as he ran through the last few days of surveillance at Shady Meadows. Some movement appeared on the screen and he froze it; then a whirl of leaves blinded him, he heard the calls of blackbirds and saw a tall man blocking the road ahead.
He screeched to a stop; the thin shabbily dressed man approached him arrogantly. Paulison opened the window and watched the man leer.
“The toll is 10 dollars, or any cigarettes you may have,” he said.
A strong gust blew up a whirl of pine duff and leaves. Paulison batted away a shotgun twig and his eyes caught sight of the outlandish view over the embankment … the tent and shantytown below, some of the people moving about like lost scarecrows come to life in the wind.
“This isn’t a toll road!” he shouted. Then the man’s arm burst through the open the window. Paulison hit the gas and drove off, sending the man rolling along the side of the car and down to the hard asphalt.
The exit to Shady Meadows appeared ahead under glorious sky on the left … the ghost town resting quietly against a golden backing of autumn hills. Paulison seized a slip of paper with Jeff’s street address and cruised the quiet streets … pumping himself up for the showdown.
Then the phone rang. Don was on the other end. “Have you evicted him yet?”
“No, I’m just arriving.”
“Then don’t. We need to renegotiate.”
“What? Are you mad? Why would I negotiate with this crackpot?”
“It has to do with the President. He came through on his promise for a bill to help homeowners in default. At least some of them … not many. The way the fine print works is if we get even one person to sign for Shady Meadows, and can prove he still lives there … a financial relief package will come in for the whole place. We can allow Jeff Connors to keep his house; we pocket the rest and later sell Shady Meadows when we can get a price on it.”
“Damn, that’s good news. Are you sure of it?”
“Damn sure. I’ve got the full package and the legal advice on it.”
“Okay, it’s a go … I’ll just have to figure out how to deal with this lunatic.”
Paulison pulled in on Jeff Connor’s street and scanned for the address, finding it about halfway down. “Sure this is a ghost town,” he thought, “but does Connors' place have to look like the command centre of nowhereville.”
It was a nice house for the price … when it had a price. But Connors was the sort of owner everyone hates. In the midst of what had been a clean suburban type community he’d managed to create his own hillbilly heaven. Flowering weeds, grubby scrub and tall beaten grass growing to infinity in a medium size yard … a doghouse the size of a storage shed. The side garage collapsed with two wrecked and rusting autos poking out. Half the front lawn, the south side and the back yard were dumps … apparently Connors collected everything the evicted neighbors had left behind. And to add to the bizarre appearance was the neat portion of front yard outside the kitchen window … leaves raked into piles, grass and weeds trimmed, but only in that small rectangular area.
Paulison got out of the car, tripped over an empty paint can in the cracked weed-grown driveway and cursed as he made his way through twilight and rubbish to the front door.
The whole place stank like garbage. It was getting dark and soon it would be murky. He wondered how Connors could survive in a dead community where the power had been cut. No lights were on in the house yet but he assumed the man had generators.
To his amazement, the doorbell lit up and rang. Moments later Jeff Connors appeared at the door. Darkness backed him. Paulison saw a big shock of blond hair and a wide grin set in an aging and sunken face.
“Ah, Mr. Paulison. I knew you’d see things my way. Come on in.”
Soft lights energized. Paulison followed the gangly and limping figure to the kitchen, thinking that the man resembled a bag of poorly clicking bones. “Perhaps he hasn’t eaten much in a while,” he thought. “Or he’s too eccentric to eat.”
Jeff gestured to the sparse kitchen table and Paulison followed his lead and sat reluctantly. He couldn’t see much in the dim light, other than that Connors was rather old and repellent. A sight that led him to the tendency of looking out the window as they conversed. There he could see twilight falling like beauty on that clean portion of lawn Connors kept; and it gave him an understanding of Connors. He kept that one clean place just for when he looked out his kitchen window. Probably for the morning when he was eating breakfast. The rest of his place was his slob’s paradise. He didn’t give a damn about the neighbors, and wouldn’t be missing them now that they were gone.
Clearing his throat, Paulison spoke. “Your message has come through loud and clear down at the bank. We took your case so seriously that we appealed to the President.”
“The President,” Jeff said, revealing a raft of decaying teeth. “He really cares about my home?”
Paulison grinned, his sucker’s grin. One he reserved for those lovely moments when the sucker was on the hook. “The President does care, and he’s come up with a plan to save your home here at Shady Meadows. It’s a done deal, just a matter of drawing up the paper work and getting your signature.”
Jeff’s mangy brows rose like dark clouds in a sudden storm, distrust crossed his pitted face like rare lightning. He knew the rain of lies would come as it always had. Then he glanced off into the darkness. He reached out, and when he pulled his hand back, he was holding a twisted rope.
In that moment, Paulision got a genuine look at Jeff’s eyes. He realized he’d fooled himself. There were no eyes there, only dark bloody holes and an evil that penetrated. He suddenly felt like screaming in his loudest and most humiliating voice, but his breath escaped him in an uncontrolled sigh.
“I hung myself with this rope,” Jeff said, hate nearly visible in his foul breath. “It was because of my home. Look out there … there’s nobody … just homeless people living in the valley. You made promises to them and you lied. Now you’re trying to lie to me again. You tore their hearts out and now you want mine.”
Rising with the look of slow death on his face, Jeff threw the table aside in a vicious motion. Paulison stood in the same moment and staggered back, watching Jeff’s hand reach for him. The hand bore no flesh, being nothing more than bones in the shape of a great claw. “Now it’s your turn,” he said, “because I’m going to tear out your heart.”
Blood flowed freely like a gusher of struck oil as the hand of revenge ripped into the electrified Paulison. His pale and shaking corpse slid down, went limp and the walking corpse that had been Jeff held up the fistful of flesh it had torn out.
The evil heart, but the heart wasn’t there, only empty clumps of bleeding flesh. And on the floor, the corpse began to rise.
Paulison got to his feet slowly and faced off with Jeff. His narrow eyes opened to slits and his purpling face gathered a knowing arrogance. He smiled and hissed. Yellowed fangs showed in his mouth. “I’m a banker. I’ve always been a banker, born into the system,” he said. “Surely you didn’t expect me to have a heart.”
Sunrise came again at Shady Meadows and Jeff emerged from his front door and wheezed deeply as he walked through tall thistles and rubbish. Across the road and throughout the rest of the village sprouting weeds were choking the prayers and dreams of Americans. He wondered about many things, about the powerful and the weak … he wondered about their God or god or gods that had abandoned them. He heard a car in the distance and knew it was Paulison’s engine. The banker was returning with the final paperwork.
God bless the President and God bless the bank. His home had been saved. Shady Meadows, at least for now, would be the property of Jeff Connors and the bank. If it came time to sell, it would be in the distant future when the price was right.
Of course, there were conditions. He’d have to maintain the grounds, keep the camera surveillance working, and make sure those miserable squatters remained down in the valley where they could do no damage to Shady Meadows. But that was nothing new; it was a job that had always been done, by the bankers, the walking dead and the heartless.
(or how to kill Margaret Atwood Smith)
© By Gary L Morton
Sunbeams crept across the floor and up the covers to his face. Doug awoke with a start, a distant bell tolling in his vanishing dream. The weakness was terrible; he raised his arms, fending off the shifting shadows like they were bats. Moments later, he rose and went to the mirror. His face looked pasty like piecrust and he put the air conditioning on, fearing he might melt.
It was hard to think; every thought seemed ragged. Staggering downstairs, he went to the fridge, and that’s when the enormity of the problem hit him.
No breakfast. The soup was gone!
His head spun; he remembered he had some in a thermos at the office and decided to head there straightaway.
The summer day hit as a painful blur, the canopy of maples a green claw reaching from a blue sky; he was aware of a queasy sensation and fear of falling. The Institute seemed to tower, ready to collapse over him, and he nearly fell backward while glancing up to his office window. A patient emerged in the yard hollering something about the spies he thought were pursuing him, and for a moment Doug wondered if madness wasn't safer than sanity on a day without soup.
Doug stumbled from the elevator like he'd been pushed and hurried to his office. He sat down and his nausea eased. The dark mahogany and paneling felt sticky and moist, almost like it was sweating blood. He got out his thermos and guided the spoon with his shaking hand, nearly spilling the soup. Then he dumped it back in the thermos and looked back to the window. The bright day stabbed at him with incredible ferocity. He felt like a vampire under the cross. Walking over he pulled the curtains most of the way shut. Then he went back to his desk and his soup.
A smooth spoonful eased its way past his dry lips. “Ah, breakfast of heroes,” he said, feeling the charge. He blessed his mother for weaning him on soup, and then he remembered how much he hated her and swallowed his bitter tongue as he pressed a button and had the patient sent in.
The door opened slowly and Clifford shambled in . . . Doug looked up from the desk, suppressing a frown. Clifford broke all the rules, including the first one, which was look sharp for the Doctor.
“Yo, Doctor Doug,” Clifford said. “You look kinda peaked, like maybe you ate a frog and it jumped halfway back up. I used to do that, eat 'em alive.”
“We haven't got much into your childhood,” Doug said. “Perhaps we'll delve into those seamy Freudian waters today. After all, if you're getting out, we want to make sure you're healthy from bottom to top.”
“Healthy. Say, Doc. The first thing you want me to do is kill your wife. How will that make me healthy?”
“Hum,” Doug said, looking thoughtful but stern. “So long as you realize that murder is wrong, and not something you can do all the time.”
“I can't realize that, Doc. I'm a psychopath. Murder seems like the right thing to do. It‘s getting locked up that seems wrong.”
“True and we definitely don't want to get caught. The killing of my wife, Margaret Atwood Smith, is to be a perfect crime. You’ll leave none of your trademarks at the scene. You could look at it as therapy. Think of it. You must kill someone and yet not dismember the body or leave bizarre clues. Won't that be difficult?”
“It certainly will. Therapy. You may have a point. If I learn to not leave my marks I might never get caught.”
“That would be better for both of us. Perhaps we should start now, look into why you leave those marks, and especially bite marks. It’s likely rooted in your childhood, so let's go into it.”
“Great!” Clifford said, obviously excited. “I love to talk about my childhood. But nobody else likes it - they can't stand to hear about it. It begins when I was about five years old. The first thing I remember seeing is a toad squashed by a car tire. I picked it up and . . .”
Clifford droned on as he went from the gross and offensive acts of a bad little boy to the deeds of a wicked young psychopath. Doug had heard it all before from other patients. Rather than let the burden weigh in on him he let it all rumble by like the passing trains of his own childhood. Clifford's voice began to drift, something distant and fading until it bubbled like filthy waters in a childhood creek. The vile words soothed Doug. His eyes grew glassy. The memory of an old church bell tolling took him back in time. He saw the old family house on the edge of town, the lilac hedge, the maples and the old well. He remembered some fun things. There was the odd crew of friends he'd entertained and their many small adventures. So many hidden places; the rail yards, tree houses and best of all his secret spot in the garage. The garage was a converted hay barn. His parents had cleaned it and put siding on it. In the loft he'd played secret games with his pals . . . the memory was pleasure that burst into flames of guilt. It choked him and buried him in a recurring nightmare. He saw his mother's angry face as she caught him. “You're a dirty little queer,” she hissed. “My son's a queer.” Then she hit him with a broom and . . . .
Doug's cheeks burned as his mind leapt back from the past. Now it was his wife calling him a queer. His wife - Margaret Atwood Smith - how trite of her to have named herself after some nutty Canadian author. And hadn't mother died long ago, and by accident. Margaret Atwood Smith would die, too, but painfully and not by accident. Doug licked his lips, considering how life would’ve been wonderful if it hadn't been for prying people. People that wouldn’t accept simple things about him that they allowed in others. No matter, he had his strength - his soup.
He looked to Clifford. Perhaps there was an answer there. Everything Clifford did was disgusting and unacceptable. He posed a problem in that society couldn’t tolerate him and had no place to put him. So he was here, talking it out with Doctor Doug. As if there was anything that could ever be done. Execution was ugly, no doubt, but Doug doubted that there was anyone that could listen to Clifford's childhood tales and not want to see his neck squeezed in the same way he'd squeezed the necks of animals.
“I see, I see,” said Doctor Doug as Clifford finished his talk.
“See what?” Clifford said.
“See you reaching out and trying to touch your childhood. Trying to reclaim those golden days when you strangled only animals. You are a man of needs, Clifford, and you need a doctor that can help you harness those needs.”
“I think you've hit the nail right on head here. Why can't the others see things like you do?”
“Forget the others. What you need is a day out and at large. To save some innocent victim from being killed by you, I want you to go over and kill my wife, Margaret Atwood Smith.”
“Okay, I'll do it. When do I get out?”
“Not yet, for safety sake you must do it while you're still in.”
“You must be crazier than I am. How could I do that?”
“Easy. Next week you'll be released in the security hall as usual, and you will come down here for an appointment. As always, we won't be disturbed until I hit this button on my desk. Except that next week, I won't be here. You'll come in and take the hat from the table to cover your face. You'll take the key beside it and go out that side door and down the staff elevator. I'll tell you how to get to my house in a moment. You’ll do the job on Margaret Atwood Smith then return. I‘ll make sure she’s at home and alone, and you won't have trouble recognizing her - just look for a stocky woman wearing a hideously cheap blond wig and you've got her. Remember not to leave your mark. Strangle a dog somewhere else if you have to. Your alibi will be perfect because you will have been with me and not at large. Once I see that the job has been done I’ll sign release papers and you’ll be free.”
Margaret Atwood Smith chewed her peeling lip apprehensively as her daily dose of reality TV failed to soothe her. She dreaded the arrival of 3 pm. and her favorite soap. Lights of our Darker Days had her hooked but she knew this was the episode in which Dr. Marvin's wife was to be killed by a hit man. She twitched uncomfortably. Her wig itched horribly.
Her thoughts drifted to Doug, uneasiness deepened - he'd been a fiend lately, throwing tantrums, breaking things, threatening her. He was like a nasty little boy. There was a striking parallel between him and Dr. Marvin on Lights of our Darker Days. She hoped he hadn't been watching big screen TV and getting big ideas. Definitely not, she decided. That was impossible. He was at the office trying to analyze patients that were probably saner than him. Doug was a wimp, really. He lacked courage. He just wouldn't have the guts to kill her or anyone. Not like Dr. Marvin, who was handsome and a real man.
But Doug had been displaying weird and abusive behavior lately. What if was more than a phase?
“Terrible man,” she muttered as commercials danced by on the screen. Terrible but not so terrible that she wasn't soon back into her soap, and asleep by the next set of ads.
She dreamed and the dream took an odd illogical form. A red bowl of soup spilled and the splash became a boiling tidal wave of blood consuming her. Then she was floating across the city and could see in the window of Doug's office at the Hardin Institute. An ugly man was taking Doug's battered felt hat from the desk. He had fierce gray eyes and a low forehead. His thin lips slanted down to the left on his unshaven face. He jingled a key and grinned, his small mouth expanding broadly as he went through a door to the elevator.
Margaret Atwood Smith fell through dream haze to street level, and a minute later she saw the man emerge, walking crookedly, covering his face with the hat. A ways down the street he jumped a board fence to a vacant lot and shambled through the weeds to an old broken down cart. He began prying at the boards and soon came up with something rusty.
The blinding sun shifted in and out of cloud towers. The restless wind combed the trashy weeds. Dust puffed and rolled in the lot, spinning-up yellowed newspaper and litter. The city hung in the background like a grainy photo.
It all started to go fuzzy, like bad reception. Margaret Atwood Smith wondered if she was dreaming. Then, as the man grew to giant proportions, she knew she was . . . his right hand was huge, grimy and creased. He stretched it to the sky and it came down, swinging a rusty pipe.
She suddenly woke . . . hearing creaking. Her muscles stiffened, she didn't dare move. The dreary music from Lights of our Darker Days partially covered the suspicious sounds, but what she heard was unmistakable. Someone was sneaking in the door in the front room.
She clutched her dress, her knuckles whitening in panic. On the screen, Doctor Marvin was cradling his wife's corpse as he wept. A moment later a shadow appeared.
“Who's there?” she said, unable to remain silent.
The man stepped into the doorway and he was wearing the hat from the dream, but he didn't have a pipe. He held flowers.
“Doug sent me,” he said, his smile slimy. “A surprise. Look, flowers for you.”
“Oh, they're lovely! Bring them to me,” Margaret Atwood Smith said.
Smug and confident, he walked right up, then sudden suspicion slanted his eyes, but it was too late. Margaret Atwood Smith had shot a foot out, and it got him - a kick to the groin. It froze him in his tracks. He grimaced, and then he grinned. Two of the flowers fell away, revealing a rusty spike beneath.
“Time to die, bitch!” Clifford said, as he prepared to strike her.
Margaret Atwood Smith also grinned, and she flipped up her skirt. “Look,” she said.
And he did look, seeing bare legs, an erect penis and a hammer.
The nail was in her hand. She flew up with incredible, maniacal speed, one hand throwing the nail forward and the other planting the hammer. It all took less than a second and it left Clifford standing there with a spike, flowers in his hand and a nail driven through his forehead.
Doug found himself naked, but he didn’t question it. Clifford's body was on the floor; crumpled like a doll. He saw a wig and a torn dress by the chair. “Poor guy,” Doug muttered. “Another victim of Margaret Atwood Smith. But he managed to take that bitch out with him. Must've hit her so hard she disintegrated. All of her except for her wig, bra and dress.”
His expression changed to one of contemplation. “Oh well, that'll be enough,” he said as he snatched up the clothing. “Enough for soup.” Minutes later, he had a huge pot of water boiling. He dropped the wig and bra in and stirred the brew with a wooden spoon. Satisfied he said, “It is indeed the perfect crime and I have murder soup. Enough for months.”
© By Gary L Morton
Daydream-filtered memories drifted like flotsam in Ralph's mind. The pert birdlike face of an old sweetheart popped up and cloned itself along a bleached alley fence, working to make a couple of old Chevy wrecks glamorous, then he had a flash of the red sports car that had severed his brother Jack's legs at the kneecaps.
People were streaming in and out of the subway, and if any of them noticed Ralph, it was because his sad face was close to being a joke-store glasses-nose and-mustache mask. He had a familiar look, he was a fool people knew from somewhere.
The words 'SPARE CHANGE' slipped easily off his lips every few seconds, like they were words he knew and revered. As he spoke, he saw things through slow waves of manageable thoughts. He preferred to keep the painful stuff buried. And today he was practically inspired; the sunrise was healthy flesh and he felt like much more than a shadow-edged bruise on the wall.
Some silver was rattling in his pocket so he muffled it with a Kleenex as he went back to the wall. Across the street, two interesting guys were coming up the alley. A short wiry guy in a faded blue suit was making quick gestures and spilling out a lot of words while carrying a sign. He was so spry his sandals barely kissed the pavement. His companion was young and plump, dressed in a weird array of secondhand clothing - baggy blue pants, a neon T-shirt, flower-print vest and a rainbow-colors silk scarf. Black-and-yellow bumblebee-style runners topped off the outfit.
The little guy held up his sign and stopped the traffic as they crossed the road, and the plump guy looked Ralph straight in the eyes and winked provocatively. Ralph didn't wink back; he backed tight against the wall, his face souring as he saw they were setting up shop beside him.
The sign had a support peg and the little guy had a fistful of flyers, which he began passing out. His weird partner unhooked a tiny drum from his side belt loop and sat cross-legged on a square of cardboard. He looked ridiculous tapping his fingers on the tiny toy drum; his hair was near to being a clown's yellow fright wig and he wore a placid expression like an idiot Buddha.
Ralph was usually a reserved person, but now he was unable to contain himself. These were pros he'd be unable to compete with, so he put on his most dangerous face - a face that might tempt some people to get out a fly swatter - and cleared his throat loudly. “If you guys are running a swindle you better move along to another station. The blue jackets always lay out fines in this neighborhood.”
“You don't read too well for a guy with glasses thicker than plastic yo-yos,” the little guy said. “We're businessmen.” He pointed to the sign.
Ralph studied the sign. A DOLLAR A VISION, it said. “Why that's fraud, no one has visions to sell.”
“I'm Moses Murphy and I have visions to sell. Ain't that right, Marvin?”
Marvin looked up from his drum. “That's right. Say, pal. Just to show you we're on the level I'll give you a free vision. Come over here and hold my hand.”
“Not on your life,” Ralph said, starting to back away.
“Don't be afraid,” Moses said. “That's the way it's done. You gotta touch Marvin to make contact.”
“Okay. I'll touch him, but only to expose this scam you guys are running. And you better not try to pick my pocket either.”
Up close Marvin's face looked artificial, like a pale wax apple, and his eyes sparkled and darted, putting Ralph in mind of Jenny Figuerada, a waitress he'd been engaged to back before he locked the president of the Commerce bank in a vault and got put out of security work. Jenny's eyes and face hadn't belonged together, like a stranger was using her eyes. Marvin also puckered his lips like Jenny - fish style.
Marvin's playful mood vanished under the cold weight of Ralph's stare. Like a mock zombie he held up a limp hand and Ralph took it, looking at it suspiciously like it might be something dead.
Nothing happened other than that he felt like an idiot, then a foul odor wafted in and he gagged. He felt his neck crack and vile medicine somehow got on his tongue.
The pain came suddenly, like a boxer had jabbed him on the jaw. Curtains of blood spilled and twisted in front of him and he could feel clammy hands caressing his legs. He was staggered, yet he couldn't move; the blood vanished and he saw a mound of swollen, blackened corpses.
A fetid odor was drifting from them, and the worst part was the faces. They were contorted like they'd died having a vision of something abominable, and they were faces of regulars he hit on while panhandling.
Bat wings flapped like canvass in his ears, then he saw a vampire bat land; using claws and folded wings, it skittered up the corpses and drank blood flowing from a small fountain at the top. Ralph's vision zoomed in. Horrible things in miniature were in the blood, visions of more corpses rolling and a million different death-head grins. He thought he saw hunger there, but it was like the hunger of a devil for your soul more than anything else.
The bat took flight, and its wings became waves of darkness that consumed Ralph. Next thing he knew he was back by the wall. He'd vomited and he could hear Marvin and Moses laughing uproariously.
Moses remained jolly, moving like a marionette, his worn suit flashing as he led Marvin closer to the subway entrance. Ralph's feet filled with lead, like he was digesting an elephant tranquilizer. His mind expanded and he watched events flow by like he was the sky. Quite a number of people were attracted by the vision pitch, and almost all of them stumbled away in shock. The exceptions were an old hag, a blond girl with a spider web on her cheek, a biker, a hooligan and several ordinary business and secretarial types. They all smiled like death and made sure they pocketed one of the flyers.
Two beat cops suddenly popped out of the alley, startling Ralph as they brushed past him. They went straight to Moses and arrested him, saying they had received a complaint. Marvin looked unconcerned. He remained, tapping on his drum as Moses was led away. A minute later, he got up, fastened his drum to his belt loop and strolled off down the street.
Ralph tailed Marvin without even thinking why, following him through a willow-dripping park, down some railway tracks and through some sumac and pines. Marvin got out of sight in the trees and Ralph ended up creeping over pine duff and twigs until he came to a clearing. He found Marvin waiting for him in the field, his hands on his hips and disgust on his face.
Ralph smiled sheepishly then his face fell as Marvin hissed and ran at him. Falling to his knees, Ralph held out his hands protectively. But he didn't have to fend off an assault. Marvin stopped dead just before he got to him and began to laugh like a crazy man.
“So you had a hungry vision,” Marvin said.
“Nope,” Ralph said.
“You must've seen something. Come into my palace and we'll talk.”
Marvin's palace was a tramp's hovel made of warped plywood sheets, tin and vegetable-oil cans. So much bird crap was stuck to it that it appeared to be dripping. Ralph ducked inside reluctantly.
“Moses isn't handling you right,” Ralph said. “You should just shake hands. I could lift a few dollars from each mark.”
“I could do it that way. The way it is Moses gives a flyer to the hungry ones and they show at a meeting so I can channel their perverse visions. They give all their money. And they have to be channeled clear. The hungry ones like the visions. They're like dogs that have tasted human blood and have an appetite for more.”
“Moses may be away for a while. You'll need a new manager, like me for example.”
“Moses is my only friend. Since I got the power six months ago nobody can stand to touch me. I really don't need to be used by an opportunist like you.”
Ralph was suddenly sorry for Marvin and he wanted to wallow in self-pity with him. “No one can stand to touch me either. I just want a friend, that's all.”
“Okay, but we've got to settle up with the people I touched today. You can come to the meeting with me and collect the money while I channel away their blood thirst.”
Vagrant neighborhoods and the gutters of the nation were sunny memory lanes in their recollections; Marvin pulled out a six-pack and listened raptly as Ralph told stories of places he'd been run out of -- sometimes Marvin added a tale of his own, but he remained strangely silent when asked for further details on the power he had gained.
The afternoon was slipping through their fingers, and then Marvin suddenly jumped up and stared as if he could see something in the white bird crap dust floating in a slat of sunlight. “Holy shit, we're late for the meeting! Let's get moving.”
Once they got to the street, Marvin pulled out some loose bills and they stood like transient clowns in the blooming city spring. A Yellow cab came along and the longhaired driver wasn't averse to breaking the speed limit. Asphalt snapped under the wheels like a rubber snake and they pulled in at a soot-blackened red brick building. It was abandoned and had a huge smokestack, like something from back in Industrial Revolution days.
“Here you go, boys. 262, the old slaughterhouse,” the driver said.
They spotted some cars at the side and walked across the gravel lot, not sure if they were at the right place. The building was like a time-tunnel object standing against a background of freeways. It had a power of desolation, like it was the wasteland heart of the city.
“I can't imagine anyone meeting here other than a group of unemployed butchers,” Ralph said.
“Moses picked the place,” Marvin said, kicking open a rusty gate. “It's private and the rent is attractive.”
The front door was battered, scarred. “Wait,” Ralph said as Marvin was about to open it. “Did you hear that?”
“It's just wind shaking through the cracks.”
Ralph nodded, but he still thought he heard a faint animallike huffing.
Marvin swung the door open and sunlight flooded part of a dim passage. A blond girl was hunched against the wall, her head hanging down under drifting cobwebs, bobbing some as she heaved up sighs.
Believing she was in distress Ralph hurried to her aid; he touched her arm and she lifted her face. It was the girl with the spider web on her face, only her face was now drained of color and her eyes were vacant.”
“You okay?” Ralph said.
Rather than answer she latched onto him and sank her teeth into his thigh, causing him to howl and drag her back as he tried to shake her loose. Her teeth sank deeper; he tripped and grabbed Marvin as he went down on the rotten floorboards. His head banged the wall and a vision came over him. He saw a vampire hag, hollowing her cheeks as she sucked blood from his torn flesh. She lifted her crimson face and her eyes shone with mesmerizing lust. Then a soft tapping began, the lines on her face became shadowy and her ugliness faded as she fell back. His vision clearing, he saw Marvin gently pulling her to her feet with one hand while he tapped his drum with the other.
Ralph tied his shirt around his wounded leg, keeping a suspicious eye on the girl, who was now still as a zombie.
“We're too late to stop the hunger,” Marvin said. “It's a good thing there are no victims around here.”
“What am I, yesterday's hamburger?” Ralph said. “Let's get out of here before more weirdoes jump us.”
“We'll take a peek inside first, and then we'll split.”
At the end of the passage, there was another door. A throaty howl sang through the cracks, lifting Ralph's hair before it slid down his spine with his shattered courage. His eyes reached out of his head, almost enough to hold the door shut.
Marvin maintained a cool expression, pushed Ralph back, guided the blond to the door, pushed her through, and then slammed it. Madhouse screaming, tortured moans, banging and thumping were followed by grotesque slurping sounds and scraping. Raising his eyebrows, Marvin gave Ralph a follow-me signal, but Ralph couldn't move, he could only watch as Marvin vanished in the gray gloom.
A minute alone proved to be a formula for terror. He regained the power to move along with the power to probably jump through the wall. He ducked into the room, in search of Marvin.
The place resembled a giant medieval dungeon. Sunlight was leaking through the cracks, cutting the general gloom and falling as bars on a floor of earth and crumbled concrete. The dirt was like camel-dung hashish; vile odors rose and they had a near gaseous power of levitation.
Marvin was standing by a post, watching dim figures move on the other side of the room. Forms that mingled and tumbled like a strange play of shadows.
Ralph hurried over to Marvin and without thinking grabbed his arm. Immediately the forms became clear, the blond girl was streaked with blood and dirt, rocking on her butt as she tore with her nails at a wound she'd just opened in her leg. Beyond her, a biker in a black leather jacket was sprawled over a small heap of mutilated corpses. Crazy hunger was on his blood-smeared face as he stared at a gruesome chain of sausage slipping in his filthy hands.
There were other people lying broken and contorted on the floor. Some were alive, sucking blood and cannibalizing body parts. One bald man was chewing on a rat.
Assuming it was a hallucination he'd got from Marvin, Ralph waited for it to pass. But it didn't pass, it only got uglier.
Marvin turned to him and his eyes were a deep well that threatened to boil up with more unspeakable things. Before he could say anything, a skeleton-thin naked man dropped from a rafter and knocked Ralph to the ground. In a flash, he was on Ralph's chest, his teeth snapping like a buzz saw, horrible blood spittle dribbling from his mouth.
Hysteria shot up Ralph's spine; he caught the teeth with his forearm, jumped up and began battering the man against a post. The force cracked his skull, blood and tissue shot out. A moment later, the man slid to the floor, and Ralph fled, striking out wildly at the shadows as he made his way to the door.
Sunset colors hit him like an explosion and he ran in circles in the parking lot then began to wander in a daze. A dam of guilt and emotions threatened to burst and snap his mind. Covering his eyes, he shook his head, ran off and cowered behind a tool shed.
He was still crouched and shivering when Marvin emerged, looking like a man on his way to a Sunday picnic. Marvin spotted Ralph, strolled over and put a hand on his shoulder. It was a healing hand that burned the taste of death off his tongue. Trauma was channeled away.
“Doesn't matter so much about them anyway,” Marvin said. “It's only evil people that go mad from the visions. They're the hungry ones. Tomorrow we'll make sure we take their money first, before we send them here to the meeting.”
---The End ---
The Monster of the Mega City
© By Gary L Morton
The stretch limo cruised down a frosty winter street. In the plush back seat shadows from denuded maple trees raced like skeletal hands over Arthur's reddened cheeks. As they pulled into a drive-in donut joint, he glanced out the smoke-tinted window. High clouds like gray ice, flowing in a river of cold morning light; it looked like the towers of mega-Toronto were drifting north on an iceberg. It was a scene as big and empty as the skeleton of a dinosaur. It made him think of civilization here as a lonely island - even the biggest scraper was nothing more than a cube that would freeze over and collapse under the weight of north winds and time.
The empty feeling didn't bother him; he wished it was more than illusion, but it was illusion because soon the streets would be bustling, and the vermin would be everywhere. They would come from all directions; it was like every shadow and every puddle in every seedy back alley gave birth to human rubbish at 8:00 a.m. sharp every day. Greedy people, unemployed people that wanted more, but they didn't want to show up for their city work assignments or do anything other than protest, beg and complain. Though they cried for handouts and a return to the welfare state, they always had drug or red light district money to blow at the video lottery terminals and gaming booths. Most of all they didn't want to pay the new food bank taxes or for anything at all. He could hear their multi-racial shouting in the back of his mind like the howling of an ill wind.
Street activists, some of the brighter ones called themselves that - he remembered reading an article by old Jack Thompson decades ago, back when they created the megacity through the amalgamation of six smaller cities. He wrote it in a serious tone, “You eliminate community government and local politicians, and what you'll get in the end is core decay, frightened citizens and an army of homeless people and criminals.”
Things were like that now because all crime was on the rise. There were fewer communities and community leaders, and almost no community activities. Community ingenuity had declined to nothing. The new story was urban decay. And there were fees for everything and housing prices and rents no one could pay. Welfare and all social services had been drastically reduced due to budget woes and a financial crisis. It all led to urban desperation, kids with gang leaders as role models and city government that was run like an occupying army, spending most of its energy and borrowed money on police to coerce the mob and keep it under control.
“Ah, too late to worry about that now,” Arthur thought as he watched his chauffeur return with a mug and muffin. He took a bite and swallowed a sip of steaming coffee, and as they pulled away, he spotted a gang of derelicts coming up out of a rubbish-papered alleyway. His stomach growled and his ulcer bit at him so hard he jumped in his cushioned seat. Damn, he was supposed to be the strong, and the wino bums were supposed to get the ulcers. He was the mayor of super-Toronto, king of the beasts. Only it felt like the beast was in his stomach, gnawing at him. The strong, “bah,” he spat out a piece of muffin and his face reddened as he smoothed his hair over his bald spot. The strong were people who could survive in that private sector slum out there -- that developers' paradise of homelessness, hunger, and unemployment. Survive and keep their health and their sanity.
There weren't many true survivors. Most people were damaged goods. It was really about privilege. He had it; these days there were the privileged and the underprivileged. The underprivileged had strength of a sort, but again it was more like that ulcer of his. Democracy used to be a do-good spirit of policy rising from the voters. But now there was little democracy and many power plays. The people used protest and riots as a club - the do-good spirit had been replaced by the ulcer. The roaring beast in their bellies that made them move, holler, and not think too much. And in some ways that was good because if you did too much thinking about democracy in the megacity, you'd probably succumb to the urge and just throw up.
A pallid sun peeked out of the clouds, creating an icy gold gleam on the windows of the ebony government tower they were approaching. The place looked as hard as a giant diamond, and it got him back to thinking about greed. The Fathers of Confederation had formed Canada because they wanted to build a great democracy. Their motives had been fairly pure, but the megacity reeked of greed, and it was appropriate because it was created to save money and make money. Less democracy, less bills; fewer local politicians and less regulation meant big developers, big government and business could forge ahead unopposed. Forge ahead and make big bucks by privatizing services and pushing through mega-projects. The One Big Toronto wasn't a democratic thing; no one wanted it or voted for it - it was created with the stroke of a provincial government pen . . . they put through a bill granting fascist powers to themselves and went ahead with the megacity. So if its people were greedy and spent all their time crying for money to throw at video gambling machines, they were really into the spirit of the city. Making a fast buck at the expense of decency and democracy was really the founding idea of it.
“Money, damn it all,” Arthur muttered as the limo turned down Lastman Boulevard. He hated money and because he hated it, he’d been elected. His opponents had gone down in corruption and scandals; every last one of them. What he wanted was power, and power was what he could never gain because he was the elected mayor. Real power was now in the hands of the City Clerk, a provincially appointed official that acted as the real mayor while Arthur was little more than a stooge. Sometimes just the thought of it made him cry; he'd reach out, tears in his eyes, grasping at the air, at the power he could never grip. In the night in his dreams he cursed the provincial government and former premier Hatchet Hardin - cursed them for that black day in Hardin’s second term when he’d declared a budget emergency and transferred the powers of Megacity Council to the appointed City Clerk.
Ahead, the gold uniforms of his paramilitary police showed amid a sea of protester denim, but Arthur didn't get to see much because the city police edged their rubber-bumpered vehicles off the curb and plowed ahead of the crawling limo. More city police, community foot patrols dressed in green khaki came up past the limo and the officers used yellow-painted metal sawhorses to widen the wake of the machines and keep a path cleared for the mayor's limo.
Arthur could see some of the people now, and he grinned. It was a crowd of protesting tenants today - a milk-toast crowd in comparison to some of the mobs he faced. Probably the most ridiculous thing about it was that they thought he could somehow aid them in their plight, or fight for rights . . . and aid them he couldn't because the City Clerk would never put a signature on any plan for tenant rights.
Sighing, he clicked his pocket organizer, and it rang immediately. It was Merv, the City Clerk. Shouting penetrated his supposedly soundproof window. “Speak up, Merv. I can't hear.” Merv was saying something about a press scrum. Fists beat at the window. He saw a face distort to hideous rubber as it pressed against the glass, then he heard the crunch of a Billy club and screaming as the tasered protester went stumbling back from the car. The guy had expensive glasses and a fringe of long hair. Probably a communist professor, Arthur thought as he watched him fall screaming on a heap of razor wire. Powering down the window, he threw the remains of his coffee and muffin at the guy. Then he sealed it and grinned - now that's power, he thought. And with all the impotence he experienced day to day, getting the odd shot in at a protester was tops. Merv's voice hollered from the phone in his lap and his grin vanished. “No scrum today, Merv,” he said, and then he hung up.
Arthur's heels clicked down a polished marble hallway. He glanced wistfully at the vaulted ceiling. This was a place big enough to be a train station, and in spite of the public galleries, it was nearly always empty. To get to it you had to cut through five levels of security. At the end of the hall, broad oak doors led into another room, which had once been a library. Arthur used his card and entered a paneled area. This was the office of the City Clerk.
Merv Harndin was waiting, sitting with folded hands at his massive desk. With light streaming in from a huge arched window behind him, he looked positively tiny. A couple of Merv's brown-suited trustees were also at the desk. They had pinched faces, and Arthur understood that to mean Merv was pissed off.
Leaving his desk, Merv walked around and up to Arthur. His plump build and inward-pointing toes killed the effect of his serious expression. The fact that he walked as silently as an undertaker was scary. “So you're hanging up on me, again,” he said.
Arthur wasn't afraid to look Merv in the eye, but Merv's pigeon toes and pointy shoes always drew his eyes downward. He always had the feeling Merv was about to kick him in the shin. Merv's nasty expression was killed by his cute curly hair, but it gained psychological effect from the fact that he was empowered by the premier, and technically was Arthur's boss. “I got the message, something about a scrum. I told you before, I can't hear while I'm pressing the flesh out front.”
“I didn't say anything about a scrum. I was talking about my vacation. I'll be gone for a month. Florida Keys. Sit down and I'll brief you.”
Merv's advisors stood as they sat down. “So you were pressing the flesh out front. What's the issue of the day?”
“Tenant Rights. Most tenants in the core are homeless or squatters, as you probably know. Say, Merv. I've been thinking. How about putting together an eviction rights package. Something I could use in the next election.”
“Merv turned to the thinner of his two assistants. He was a very nervous man with bony hands that trembled. “What is our position on tenant rights? Are we allowed to dispense any?”
“Hum, I would say the problem is the provincial government’s Tenant Review Bill. What we have there is the skeleton of the original Landlord and Tenant Act, which is 425 pages outlining tenant rights, plus 8,750 pages of new conservative amendments to it in the omnibus bill, and these amendments limit those rights. It would take about a week to read it through. The main thing tenant protesters want is the reinstatement of courts to handle eviction cases. If we could convince the premier to allocate spending, which is doubtful, there is still the problem of amending the amendments. It could be mentioned in as many as 500 different places that tenants have no right to fight an eviction. So if we don't correct them all the first case will fail in court.”
“Well, I guess that's something long-term you can work on for the next election,” Merv said. “Now, about my vacation. My assistants aren't fully qualified so you’ll be signing all documents on your own authority - acting as mayor and clerk. The premier's office will help you with information on what you might want to sign and what you might not want to sign. If in doubt, leave it until I get back. Put a freeze on all spending by councillors. Your public appearances will be limited, and since I won't be editing any speeches for you while I’m away, make sure you beat around the bush. Whatever you do, don't make any firm commitments. This office will be closed, so you are to work at your usual hideaway office. If all goes well I‘ll be out of here by noon.”
Two huge steel doors decorated the other end of the vaulted hallway, and these opened on a helicopter pad. Usually Arthur used a smaller side door. Checking the wind gauge, Arthur saw it was safe to open them and used his card. The copter and pilot were waiting on the pad, as they were every morning. The reason for it being that Arthur didn't actually work at city hall like the protesters thought. A year ago, citing security reasons, the City Clerk had rented Arthur's suite of offices out to lobbyists for a multinational pharmaceutical firm and moved him to a hideaway office on the waterfront Planet Fair Demolition Lands. These lands were actually a strange sort of ultra modern wasteland - a megacity project built down on the southeast waterfront when it seemed certain that that the city’s bid for the Planet Fair would be approved.
The area featured several blocks of eroded streets filled with illegally dumped industrial waste, debris and rubbish. When the hi-rises of the mega project had been constructed, an old underground sewer system and an unstable rock formation beneath the sewers had been overlooked. It meant they had completed a project that was really a giant Humpty Dumpty ready to collapse - and it did collapse. The lesson learned was that when mega-projects were put together in secret and it was too easy for developers to get permits, they didn't check for other structures they were building on. Now there wasn't a permanent resident in the whole place; if you could find a stray cat or raccoon you were lucky. Access was by plane only.
Arthur had objected to the move at first, and then he'd thought it over. He hated the City Clerk and his brown-shirted financial crisis team, so it wouldn't hurt to get away from them, plus he was going through a divorce battle with Margaret and the demolition lands were a place where her lawyers couldn't get to him. It seemed like a temporary solution so he'd bought into it.
As the helicopter hit the air, he thought about buying out of the deal. His guess being that Merv had put him there to humiliate him, or maybe he was hoping a building would fall on him. There was also the possibility that the premier was behind it - a move to keep him under control, having only to fly into the city for controlled scrums. There really was no danger of him saying anything controversial when he was hidden in a wasteland most of the time. The premier seemed to have political instinct. He knew that any mayor would eventually make a bid for power. Possible power plays were blocked as long as Merv and the trustees were in firm control.
Toronto panned out below like a glossy postcard as the copter headed straight for the lake. In the immediate city, little green space showed, just jammed traffic arteries, scrapers and concrete. He was glad when the blue waters of the lake appeared, cool, and relaxing – enough so that the domino tumble of condo towers next to the Toronto Island super airport didn't bother him any more. He closed his eyes, let his thoughts spin with a few deep breaths, and when he opened them they were descending on a wide wall of rubble, barbed wire and denuded thorn bushes. Broken streets and small bridges showed at odd earthquake angles. He could see rusting auto wrecks, shattered buildings and the gleam of broken glass. There was nothing quite like the demolition lands. Smack in the middle of them an open square and dry fountain appeared. A concrete slab like a bunker with gun-slit windows rose on the west side, and that was Arthur’s office. Cleaned daily by the only city works crew that had survived the privatization laws, it was his personal paradise, home away from home, and place of business.
Cold wind from the rotors chilled him and sent leaves skittering on the frosty cement. Arthur shivered, looked around, and then walked to the main doors. Stopping by a marble column, he turned and looked back at the rising helicopter. In moments, it’d vanished, and he felt another cold wind; this one moaning, creaking through the shifting wreckage like a frosty ghost and sending light hail rattling against boarded windows. It would have given other men the creeps, but to Arthur it was the sound of home.
His footsteps echoed like gun claps as he walked the foyer. Though flat when it was built, it now inclined slightly and Arthur had to remember to walk slowly. Stopping at his office door, he recalled that most of his work was done. It would be a good day to start with the tenant rights idea. Slag Peterson was the big candidate talking about running against him in the next election, so it would be nice to come up with a few surprises during the campaign. Slag never campaigned on anything but tax cuts and a developers’ wish list. Arthur grinned as he considered how a few issues like rights for tenants would throw Slag into a state of hopeless confusion.
His magnetic key turned in the lock. Maybe the premier would fund a system like the old one - one rotating circuit judge, who rode around the city on public transit hearing eviction cases at no cost in the public areas of shopping malls. The door creaked open - he could have the 8,750 page compendium of amendments flown in and start work on it in the afternoon. Wiping his shoes on the mat, he nodded in private approval, turned, and then he saw something crazy and gasped.
A large map of the city was posted on a board behind his desk, only now it had a huge hunting knife stuck in it. Arthur's hair stiffened as he walked over. As he got closer, he saw that it held a bloody note on butcher paper. Pulling the blade out, he snatched the note. Blood got on his fingers so he hurriedly pulled out a handkerchief and wiped them, then his ulcer roared and his vision blurred. Managing to fall into his chair, he winced and waited for his head to clear. He read the note carefully.
“REMEMBER ME OLD BUDDY, HOW I TOLD YOU I'D GET YOU, BUT THAT'S ONLY IF SOMEONE ELSE DOESN'T GET YOU FIRST. YOU SHOULD WATCH WHAT YOU'RE SIGNING, ARTHUR. THIS IS ABOUT MURDER AND YOUR PAL, MERV. SEEMS HE'S GOT YOU ON THE HOOK FOR ABOUT A BILLION IN FRAUD. MEET ME IN THE OLD TUBE AT TWO, BRING MERV AND TEN MILLION IN CITY NOTES OR I'LL GET WORD TO THE POLICE. DON'T TALK TO ANYONE ELSE OR THE BLOOD ON THE NEXT NOTE WILL BE YOURS.”
The note fell limp in his palm, and for some moments, he stared in disbelief. Then it hit him, who it had to be and he felt his tongue become a dead lump in his mouth. Fear rammed it into his throat, and his ulcer went cold as ice. Falling forward from the chair, he went to his knees on the floor and choked. He shook the note - “Damn it, no! no! It can't possibly be . . . I'm losing my mind.” Blood rose to his head so fast he felt his face flush and he nearly passed out, then a voice . . . a voice from a past he’d all but forgotten, rang out . . . it echoed in the cold streets and sewers of his memory . . . 'I'll get you, Arthur! I'll get yoooooooooooooooooou!'
Stumbling to his feet, he seized the desk and shook his head. “Call Merv . . . wait,” he muttered. “Maybe Merv's behind it. He found out somehow, and wants to drive me mad and put me away. But why would Merv blackmail himself for ten million? But if it's not Merv, then it's Ace, and it can't be Ace. . . that's impossible . . . he's been dead for twenty years.”
Deciding he needed help, he went back to the foyer and down to a reinforced door. His bodyguard, Edward was billeted there, though Arthur rarely saw him. He'd have to take him along for protection. Edward was far too dumb to be involved in such a clever plot, Arthur was sure of that, so he opened up and hurried down the hall, expecting to find Edward in his quarters watching the sports satellite channels like always. As usual, the door was open, and he could hear cheering. Edward had his back to him, and appeared to be absorbed in a Jays game, which had to be a replay since Arthur knew the Jays weren't playing today. “Edward,” he said quickly, “get dressed, I need you.”
There was no answer and Edward didn't move. Asleep at the set again, he thought. He hurried over and seized Edward's shoulder, and to his surprise found it hard and cold. Edward fell back and his face came into view - ice-blue eyes bulging, blood tears, his tongue protruding fatly from his gaping mouth, and there was a steel dart stuck in the centre of his forehead.
Arthur gagged, staggered back. He was about to run when he spotted one of Edward's automatic weapons on the floor. Grabbing it, he took off, heading for the front doors.
Cold wind blasted his face as he ran across the square, and it occurred to him that running wasn't the best idea. It was likely safer in his bunker than it would be in the wrecked streets and buildings. But that didn't matter, because Edward's body and the possibility that the killer was still in there was a power he couldn't overcome. Ducking into an outdoor wireless phone niche, he picked up the receiver and was about to punch in a number when he remembered that none of the phones here worked. He slammed it down and took out his pocket organizer. Phoning the police wouldn't be a good idea; he couldn't do that or they'd want to know about the note. If they captured the blackmailer alive he’d talk, and his career as mayor would be over. Merv couldn't possibly be behind something this insidious, he was sure of it now, so he punched in his number.
“Calling already, Arthur. Guess I'm not going to have much of a vacation, am I?”
Arthur steadied his hand and told him about the death and the note.
“You didn't call the police, did you?”
“He calls you old buddy, so just how long has he been blackmailing you?”
“He hasn't, and I don't know him, I swear.”
“You son of a bitch, Arthur. You gave him information about me!”
“I didn't. I couldn't. I don't know anything about a billion-dollar fraud. There isn't one, is there, Merv?”
“Of course not, but this guy must have some dirt on us he's planning to release. I need a name, give me his name.”
“Ace, but it won't do you any good, because Ace couldn't have written that note - he's been dead for twenty years.”
“You're nuts, Arthur. I want that name. Never mind, I'm flying in with my security man to track this maniac. Keep on the run and prepare to meet him at the tube at two, and you better hope I don't find out that you're in on this.”
“Bring the City Notes.”
“I guess you couldn't do without that money, could you?”
“Shut up, Merv - you asshole. There's a killer after me, and I don't care about you or money. But if we have to lure him out, we need the dough.”
Arthur pocketed his phone, shuffled away from the booth, nearby buildings leaned crookedly, and he could feel cold eyes watching him from every broken window. Waiting around for Merv wasn't an option; the killer could pick him off. Maybe a dart would whistle down any moment. The thought of it made him shiver. The tube, he said meet him in the tube. What was that? Putting it to mind he remembered that the tube was the first part of the project to collapse - part of the expressway project, and it had dropped into the old overlooked sewer complex the project had been built over top of. “Let's see, from here the tube would be to the north.”
Loosening his belt, he stashed the weapon, then he hugged the wall, moving north through the square. Everything was iced over, making for slippery going, and the obstacles were many - piles of broken concrete, broken flagpoles, rusted reinforcement bars, fallen ledges, hunks of tar and roofing stone. He came to a spot where the street had split and he could see the corpses of earthworms in the frosted side.
The wind sang high, every rusty nail and loose board above creaked as he climbed over the remains of a dump truck in a sunken intersection. He was hurried along by the blow on a street that wound north. A huge sheet of tin, half-torn from a works building, banged incessantly against a metal pole that held a street sign that had rusted to the point of being unreadable. Jumping some timbers, he found another block of open but warped road and hurried on. Near the next intersection, the wind gusted and blew the door of a plastic Johnny open, causing him to wobble near a deep crevice. Flurries spun and skated on the rubble, cloud shadows drifted and the CN Tower rose like an unfriendly giant in the distant gloom.
Thoughts of the killer sent his blood running cold, but in spite of the fear, his mind weighed the truth of the situation. A blackmailer wouldn't have killed Edward. It couldn't be a professional after him or he'd be dead already. This murderer was likely a maniac - a concept that caused him to bite his tongue, groan, and wonder why in the hell he was going alone to this meeting. But what else was there? He supposed it was that he didn't trust Merv . . . that and the fact that he had to face it sooner or later. If Merv was into fraud like the note said, then what sort of deal was it? And murder . . . it sure wasn't Merv that planted a dart in Edward's forehead.
Arthur knew Merv could be getting kickbacks, but hell, in reorganized megacity politics a lot of people were getting them. City deals were always rushed through by politicians and committee members bought by developers with plans for mega-projects. The megacity was a developers' mega-dream. Some people said it wasn't only developer corruption, but bureaucratic corruption. They thought that the old conservative Al Peachly had tightened city amalgamation by using blackmail to eliminate a crew of councilors who were in the way of plans to download more costs. Old Peachly sure couldn't say anything about that now. He'd died right here, in the demolition lands, breaking sod on the day the tube and the sewers collapsed and Humpty Dumpty came down for the big fall. Most of his key staff and the former city clerk had been with him that day. It meant that if there had been any corruption they would never testify concerning it. If they did, they'd be the first witnesses that ever dug themselves up from under the rubble of a forty-storey building to testify against themselves.
Merv had been in charge of the records even back then, and he'd testified that the old sewer system that destabilized the development had never been on record. The developers couldn't have known about it. Only thing was - Arthur knew the sewers were on record at one time and that Merv had lied. He knew but he wasn't able to say a word, not even to Merv, because revealing the information would bring to light a period in his past that he wanted buried.
“Buried,” he thought, and a spotlight flashed high in the gloomy clouds swirling past the CN Tower, illumining the truth in his mind. Skeletons came clear of the cobwebs, and he saw it all. Merv had somehow pieced together his past. Merv had to make sure he never talked … because if it were discovered that Merv had lied about the sewers, the case would be reopened and he'd go away for a long time.
The sound of beating rotors carried on the wind. Glancing up he saw Merv's blue copter descending into the crooked maze of buildings. A huge chunk of concrete came crashing down like a bomb, destroying the side of a phone booth on his right. Hurrying to shelter in a runoff tunnel, he looked back, seeing a high ledge split and more concrete spider and fall. If any of it hit him, he'd be dead; killed by the wind and not Merv.
The realization hit him; once crushed he’d never live again in this city. And that meant one thing; no one had come back to life. There wasn't a supernatural killer or monster. Merv had written that note after digging up some clippings on his past. His hired butcher had killed Edward and planted the note. But why the charade? Why the phony meeting in the tube? And why would Merv come over personally when he was supposed to be heading for the Florida Keys, presumably for an alibi? Could be they wouldn't kill him right away, but hold him until Merv was safe. Have him answer some questions, make some phone calls, then terminate him when everything fit their plan.
“They'll never get me, the bastards!” His numb hand touched the automatic weapon under his coat. He hurried ahead out of the tunnel. A quick flash caught his eye; light illumined part of a dark coat as someone moved in the gloom beyond a cracked storefront window. Someone had appeared and faded fast - the mark of someone deadly. Someone who could only be Merv's hired killer.
Keeping on the far side of the street, he crept along in the shadow of a pocked brick wall, his eye still on the suspect window - then something black slithered at his feet, his ulcer clawed at him, a cat screeched, and he ran like crazy, the wind moaning through broken walls and girders like a zombie in hot pursuit.
This portion of the road inclined upward, so he huffed to the top and halted, finding that the asphalt ahead had collapsed. Eroded earth gullied down to a stack of empty drums and a dead end. “Shit!” he said, staring at the jack hammered wall. He noticed the flurries melting in front of him, and felt a rush of warm air. A familiar smell, the odors of the sewer, and it brought back memories. It meant the gully was a split where the project had shifted down into the old sewer complex. Glancing back, he saw no one, but he heard something snap, and that was enough to start him downhill. He got three long steps before the frosty earth collapsed, sending him headlong to the bottom where he tumbled into the drums. The gun in his belt hammered his kidneys so hard he nearly passed out. For a moment, he groaned with wet flurries hitting his face. A strong exhalation of acrid sewer air roused him. Looking right he saw the end of a broken megacity pipe, rusty mesh and a torn sewer grate. It meant the old tunnels were right below and it would be possible to use them as a getaway.
Dropping down, he waited for his vision to focus; he could see about twenty yards back, after that it was gloom. Taking out his keychain penlight, he clicked it on and saw that the tunnel was clear. If he were very lucky, he'd find a passage to another exit and escape the killer.
Clods of earth rattled down behind him; he hoped it wasn't someone coming down the rise. Fear killed the pain in his back and he began to walk, careful steps because the floor was skinned with dirty ice. Slime on the walls had frosted over, and there wasn't any polluted water or sewage now as the connection to the rest of the city had been severed after the collapse.
The tunnel widened; there was plenty of room for upright walking. Light fanned down in spots from jagged splits above, and he could hear the faint howl of the wind. He came to a branch where the walls were bricked. And it was an area he remembered from his old days as a sewer worker - days that'd ended twenty years ago. His sense of direction returned, and he took the larger branch, knowing it headed north to the tube. He had it in mind that there might be a break there, a spot where he could hide and watch for Merv. Pulling the gun from his belt, he checked it over and thought about shooting Merv. Maybe he'd just blast him from a hole in the wall and that would be the end of it.
An open workman's storage area appeared off to his left, and at the back of it, he saw a heavy gray door. The place seemed familiar. Walking over, he tried the handle, and though stiff, it moved, allowing him to pull it slowly open. Raising his penlight, he looked around and at first saw nothing but a rust-stained concrete floor. Then he stepped in and something caught his eye. He steadied the beam. It focused on cobwebs and a skeleton. His hand jumped, and the light illumined more skeletons. Staggering back, he felt his scalp tighten like a glove. Turning, he hurried out the door and paused for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Footsteps, a shuffling and scraping came from the tunnel, and he didn't step out and look, but quickly stepped back in the room and quietly closed the door.
Now it was certain that someone was following him. He made his way across in the gloom, passing the skeletons slowly and brushing against a stack of crumbling paper. He heard another scrape and turned. He saw a very faint light and crept over to an air grate. He could see through the slats to the tunnel. Footsteps echoed and he crouched as a shadow approached. It was a man, dragging one foot as he walked - a cripple. The dark form walked right up beside the grate, passed it, then halted, turned, and headed back. For a brief moment, faint light fell on the face, and it was a moment that stopped Arthur's heart. It skipped about five beats, and for at least a minute, he couldn't breathe. His lungs simply froze. When they started to pump again, blood and a force of electrifying fear rose and he felt his hair turn to nails. The face, it had been horrible, deformed with splotches of scar tissue and rust . . . and it had been Ace's face. Ace, the man who'd sworn he'd get him.
Ace was supposed to have died twenty years ago, and in the old days, he’d been Arthur’s foreman in the sewer. It seemed impossible and mad that he’d still be here. But he was here and without a doubt, he’d collected the skeletons and written the note.
He wondered what the skeletons were; people Ace had killed or unfortunate victims whose bodies had been washed into the sewers? He walked back over and scanned the bones with his penlight, finding one of the skulls to have a metal tag with an inscription. Peachly, it said.
“Damn,” Arthur whispered as he realized that Ace must've dug up the remains of Al Peachly and the other staffers buried in the big collapse. Shining the light on the stack of papers, he studied the top one - some kind of document, he could still read the signature – Jackson Chardy. Chardy had been involved in the early projects. Grabbing another paper, he found it to be signed by Merv. He skimmed it and understood what the documents were . . . evidence, documentation that proved the whole Planet Fair deal had been based on conspiracy and fraud. Of course, Arthur already knew that without seeing any evidence, because the idea originally came from Al Peachly and a few developers.
The remains of the big Planet Fair project stood directly overhead; the project that had ended up as the demolition lands. A development scam that put twenty billion dollars into the pockets of developers, construction companies, unions, lobbyists and political hacks.
Rank as fresh garbage and as stale as thousand-year-old rot, the reek of the sewers rose in his nostrils. Something viler than an ulcer moved in his stomach, and determination grew. The flavor of the whole thing stuck in his mouth like the aftertaste of some crook's horsemeat hot-dogs. Politics was something ugly, a monster, and these people had let the beast run amok. The megacity was their monster, their legacy.
With this evidence in his vault, he could do anything he wanted to do as mayor. He could spend a billion on tenants if he liked. There was no more time for tea with skeletons and old pals turned to phantoms. Merv would be out there, playing for all of the marbles. He had to erase Merv. Lifting his gun, he stared at the gold Remington label and resolved to deal with the situation. Merv was a little prick, that was all he'd ever been, and if he murdered people, it was because he didn't know how to wield power. For Ace's part, it was too bad he'd become a freak -- too bad, but life was life and if Ace got in the way he'd just have to find the strength to shoot him.
The door handle felt like ice; he eased it open slowly and stepped out. Hopping down to the tunnel, he looked back, seeing nothing but retinal flashes in the dark. Flicking on the penlight, he swept it across the tunnel. It came to rest on a face - Ace's aged and distorted mask of a face. He stood in the shadows beside a broken manhole ladder, eyes dead, almost like he was a statue . . . then a spark lit his pupils, his mummified upper lip curled grossly and he began to move.
Aiming the Remington, Arthur prepared to fire. His hand shook. He knew he owed Ace and he really didn't have anything against him. Fear and pity flowed like poison in the pit of his stomach. Lowering the gun, he turned and ran. Sand and gravel on the patches of ice aided his footing and the sound of his heart pounded with his heels. Brown brick walls changed to gray stone and concrete. Swinging left at a fork, he entered rounded runoff tunneling. Water trickled over hard mud at the bottom, his feet made a slapping sound. Death pursued him in the darkness to his rear, he was racing to meet it in the tunnels ahead, it was there with the gun in his hand, and it towered overhead in the heights of the Demolition Lands … the wind howling through the disintegrating scrapers was its breath, the smashed girders, glass and concrete its teeth. The creators of this nightmare couldn’t have been human, they were the skeletons he'd seen, grinning and mocking as their spirit of decay killed city democracy and brought everything low.
The people had lotteries, drugs, poverty, prostitution, and serfdom. It was democracy as fair and friendly as a kick in the teeth. And they had him as mayor - an impotent weakling who'd done nothing but listen to the dictates of the premier's brown shirts and the City Clerk. Arthur had always wanted power, always admired men of power, dreamed of power. If he died now he'd die a failure and a coward, a shivering loser who'd never realized even part of his lifetime dream.
A rush of cold air and a crescent of bright light alerted him, woke him from the evil daydream. If he’d calculated correctly, he'd be at the tube - the half-kilometer bypass ramp to the new super expressway. Since this end of the tube was the only part that hadn't crumbled, Merv had to show here.
The light brightened, the tunnel narrowed. Heaps of sand and gravel had poured in, making it nearly impassible in spots. He saw busted timbers blocking the exit, which really wasn't an exit, but just a place where the roadbed of the tube had collapsed. The light was five feet up, which meant he had to climb out without being able to look around first. If Merv had arrived early, he could be picked off. But most likely he hadn’t as the helicopter couldn't have landed directly. Biting his lip, he tried to decide. Merv would have a gunman with him, so he'd be up against two men. Looking back, he saw nothing, but he knew Ace was following. He didn't want to go back; he preferred to take his chances with Merv.
Stuffing the Remington in his belt, he walked up a heap of lumpy earth and worked his way around the first timber. Catching a second one, he pulled himself up onto a ledge of broken concrete. Looking up he saw flurries rushing on the wind and a niche in the sand layer below the asphalt he could use to get over the top. He took a deep breath. “This is it,” he muttered, then he pushed up, got his foot in the crack, sprang up over the top and kept running - getting about two feet before he hit a huge pothole sheeted over with ice and went slipping and sliding. He fell hard, whamming his shoulder and banging his head. When he got up, black snow whirled across his thoughts, and Merv was there, sitting on an old tire discarded from some giant earth-moving tractor … sitting there with a grin and an expensive Colt laser-sight handgun in his black-gloved hand.
“I’m so glad you could join me,” Merv said as his face pinched into a nasty frown - a look that was silly considering his wet drooping curls and the white cap of flurries topping them. “Sit down,” he said, pointing to a stack of warped timber. “I guess we can chat while my man gets your buddy.”
Arthur glanced back and smiled. “You mean he's down there, looking for us?”
“He is, and he's armed, so it won't be funny for your accomplice when he finds him.”
“Don't count on him bringing anybody back. I think he'll lose his nerve after he gets a look at this accomplice.”
Merv wagged his gun. “I said sit down.”
Arthur shuffled over to the boards slowly, trying to hide the bulge of the weapon at the back of his coat. It looked like he was in for a tiny bit of luck. All those gun control speeches he'd made must've convinced Merv, and he couldn't grasp that he might be packing one. Being a wimp had its advantages.
“Guess you found out about me?” Merv said, watching him sit.
“Guess you found out about me, too?”
“Not as much as I want to know,” Merv said. Reaching in his pocket with his free hand, he pulled out a folded newspaper clipping. “I got worried and wanted to be sure there were no references anywhere that would show I had knowledge of these old sewers. The reason is this, Arthur. They didn't collapse by accident. On the big day, when old Al Peachly, his staff, and the former City Clerk put in their spades, I hit the button. I blew up a tiny section of the rock formation and sewer and brought the whole caboodle down on their heads. I made sure they’d never get caught and talk.”
Arthur shivered. “Holy shit, you've been a maniac all along!”
“Yes, and maniacs have to cover for themselves. The only thing I found when I looked up the sewers was this newspaper copy with a picture of you and the police tracking some guy who fled into the tunnels twenty years ago.”
Arthur chuckled as he wiped away a tear. “I told you my background was in labor. At that time I was a sewer worker, and nearly went to jail for it.”
“Give me the whole story.”
“I arrived in Toronto from eastern Ontario and I couldn't find a job. I ended up collecting welfare. I got a check, but instead of using it to rent a room, I got drunk. The police arrested me on Yonge Street, drove me to a waterfront bridge, and knocked me about. They told me to get out of Toronto and then they left. I sat there dazed, and then I saw some workers emerging from a manhole by the bridge. Only there was something odd about it because they got upset when they noticed me there. The foreman was a guy named Ace. He came over and talked to me. A minute later, he pulled out a bottle of Canadian Club, and in the end, he offered me a job in the sewer. I got union membership without attending a meeting and it turned out to be one hell of a good job. In some ways it was the best job a man could get.”
“Yeah, those were the good old days,” Merv said. “Salt of the earth. I've always admired men who want to work. Sometimes I wish I could get my hands dirty again.”
“Work? We didn’t do any work. We left every morning and went down into the old sewer complex. It was closed even back then, and Ace had hidden the records on the complex. We didn't have to worry about meeting up with other workers, so what we did was play cards, get drunk, and come out on Fridays to get our pay.”
“Lazy bastards,” Merv said. “Thank God they weeded you people out in the megacity transition.”
“Bastards -- maybe. It went on for years. We played cards and Ace was my hero. Many times he wouldn't play. He’d get drunk and sit there, saying to no one in particular - 'Work, I worked seventeen years of my life. Seventeen years and I swear I'll never work another god damn day.' - Then he'd bang his glass down and grin. His theory was that Canadians are people who like to have it easy. Anyone who wanted to work wasn't a real Canadian. He admired crooked politicians and other people who could get paid without working a stitch. Back then, they were always talking about getting welfare people back to work, and old Ace called that treason. He said it ran against the grain of the people. He said no true Canadian would want to work and make other people rich. The only thing a Canadian wants is freedom and a case of beer.”
Merv shook his curly head, his eyes popping like it was the wickedest thing he'd ever heard. “I know about those kinds of people,” he said. “But maybe Ace was right in a way. The old reform government got turfed for killing welfare and just about every other socialist benefit, but it was too late for the bums and commies. We'd taken everything away and time passed until my uncle, Hatchet Hardin became premier and solidified the deal. In some ways, I admire Ace's honesty. The rest of the union crew and the liberal left always lied. This Ace guy came straight out and straight up. He was a crook and a bum and proud of it.”
“It's nice that you admire him. You can tell him that when he comes out.”
“Comes out. What do you mean?”
“I mean it's him that your man down there is after. Ace is like a zombie now, but he's bright enough that he wrote that note. He's been down there for twenty years. We never found him. It was assumed he fled the country, and that was the way I liked it. He swore he'd get me that day we chased him into the tunnels. I still hear his voice hollering in my nightmares. In the end, I testified against the union and got a new identity. That's how I became Arthur and megacity mayor without the scandal coming out.”
“Very clever of you . . . a mayor who's been a bum all along. You should be down there with your pal.”
“Don't worry, he's not alone. He's got the others - the skeletons of the people you killed. He keeps them in one of the old storage rooms where we used to play cards. Maybe he talks to them, plays poker and tells them how he doesn't want to work.”
“Unfortunately for Ace, no one is going to miss him when he dies. Which fits perfectly into my plans.”
“You put me over here to erase me even before you found out about the sewers - why? I never had any power as mayor. You always had it all.”
“The why is because the premier plans to change things. They're talking about cutting my position and going with an elected mayor who has my powers. The left has been squeezed out now and many Tories fancy the idea of running for mayor, but none of them wants to be a powerless mayor. They aren't worried about you because they think you'll be an easy candidate to beat. But I know that you’re too smart for them. You’ll win and be beyond my control.”
“I'll win. I'll make the changes I've been wanting to - I'll make them crawl.”
“Unfortunately you won’t be alive to run. After your scandalous death and the news of the billion-dollar fraud you engineered, the public will want to vote for the sitting mayor and hero who exposed it all. And that person will be me.”
Ricocheting gunshots and a heavy thump rang up from the tunnel. Merv cupped his free hand to his ear. “Looks like your pal has bit the dust. Too bad you won’t be around for the campaign. I have wicked stuff I can release on all of my opponents, so it’ll be fun.”
More shots zinged in the tunnel, dust smoked up, followed by a scream, a ghastly scream. One that went on and on, echoing up from the hole and vanishing in the winds of the tube.
“God, what's happening down there?” Merv said as another howl echoed up.
“Your man has failed, Merv. Ace got him. I don't know what's happening to him, but it sure can't be pretty. Call him the new boy on the skeleton crew.”
“No, I can't let that happen,” Merv said. Getting up from the tire, he hurried over to the hole and looked down. But It was silent, just a low moan of the winter wind sweeping through the tube.
Seeing his chance, Arthur pulled out his gun, but he didn't fire. He waited a long moment, ready to squeeze the trigger. When Merv turned, the sight of the weapon didn't panic him; he simply raised his gun and faced-off with Arthur. “You don't have the guts to shoot that thing, Arthur. I know you and how you feel about guns with anything but rubber bullets in them.”
Blood rose from Arthur's pounding heart, flushing his brow. He knew Merv was right; he couldn’t pull the trigger. “I'm going to back up behind these boards and walk away, Merv.”
“No you don't,” Merv said. “Take a step and you're finished.”
Arthur glanced at his right foot, like he had to check to see if it would obey him, then they both heard a tearing sound rise from the pit. “Looks like your zombie pal is going to come up and swallow bullets,” Merv said.
Bullets, rubber bullets, the idea lit in Arthur's mind like a fuse. It was Edward's gun and he hadn't allowed Edward to use real bullets. He was carrying an automatic Remington loaded with rubber ammo. It meant he could pull the trigger, and as Merv glanced back at a grimy hand reaching up from the hole, he did fire. A heavy spray - it sent Merv stumbling back, firing wild shots in the air. Lowering his aim to Merv's knees, Arthur clipped his legs out from under him. Then Merv let out a yell of disbelief and anguish as he fell and slipped into the hole.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The screams had been muffled, and when no one came out of the hole, Arthur knew that Ace didn't want him. After twenty years in the sewer, he had peace. Perhaps if Merv was still alive Ace would have company for a while. Someone to play a few last hands with . . . someone with many confessions to make.
Arthur walked up out of the tube and faced the skewed skyline of the demolition lands. He turned; the megacity was sketched against low gray clouds. Tower spotlights flashed through the curtain of snow, and then a white wave of hail swept in, jingling across the empty drums and cans like Christmas bells. An easy smile crossed his face, his lips curled with satisfaction. Mega-Toronto was a monster of a town, and the founders of it were a wicked bunch of skeletons. Old Ace was a zombie now, and it looked like Merv had joined the phantom crew in the sewers. They were all down there in the heart of decay; emperors had their monuments, politicians their statues, and like the Egyptians, the megacity geniuses had a tomb. Like Ace, they'd never work again - their time had come and gone. They were history-book heroes, and no one cared about a little mega-corruption in the past. The world had its new people, and Arthur was one of them. He was now a mayor with power; and he knew how to use it. Yes, the megacity had its ghouls and that was true, but now the biggest ogre in town was him - he was the monster of the megacity, because he had the power, unlimited power, and the only key to the city.
--The End –
Halloween Convention Report
© By Gary L Morton
Sometimes I see melon tears on the horizon. Tonight they’re a smear on the darkness. Leaves are falling. A big moon is rising, laying a silver carpet on the crisp autumn field. The trees and towers of Toronto rise in the night, granting me that illusory feeling of loneliness. I use the word illusory because all human feelings are little more than that. There isn't a kernel of reality in others than we can touch and we haven't a definite core ourselves. It all shifts like mist, yet I do agree that occasionally faces form and touch and some part of the world is shared.
We really are ghosts, we can be nothing more, and if ghosts are what we fear, then we fear ourselves.
As the host of this convention - Halloweencon Toronto – I’m a man who has written about ghosts, and one of my key guests specializes in ghosts. Of course, the difference is that my tales have never been completed - a sort of writer's block that never lets me end a story. My manuscripts remain like ancient scrolls, having lost detail that will never be recovered.
I do admire San Allan, because he did finish his tales and they are the best around. I invited him because of his talent - finding his demands so disappointing. Would the wine and partying flow freely, and just between two lovers of dark fantasy, would I provide him with cocaine and a lover for the weekend? It certainly is true that the stories are beautiful and the flesh is spotted corruption.
Ghost stories are often told by firelight, and now as I light the kindling I can tell you how they end. They end in fright and death. But that is nothing to fear because death cannot be real. Like all else it too is an illusion and a ghost. San Allan said that, and I quoted it to him just before I shot him with his own antique pistol.
He had no last words. San died quickly, like the characters in his tales, leaving the reader the sole right to speculate on the meaning of his death. He certainly was frightened as I held the gun and told him why he would die - so call this one a scary story - for him.
Flames lick up and if you were here, you would see San Allan as I see him. Though perhaps you wouldn't recognize him. I have hung him from an oak bough, holding his spirit here to wander. He wears my manuscript around his neck because he is the final chapter. San once said that Halloween without a ghost story is not Halloween - and now we have our tale through my manuscript and San, and we have perfection.
Vance Kingsley is another talent I invited to Halloweencon Toronto, and he was very hard to get. My news briefs on the many goodies of the convention had little influence on him. It was only when I notified him that our panel had selected him for a special award for accomplishment and perseverance that he agreed to attend.
For many years, Vance was noted for starting the old shouldn't-it-be-called-dark-fantasy-and-not-horror debate at conventions. And I don't suppose writers can ever resolve that question when publishers seem to name the genre. No matter what you tell them they'll use the name they think is going to sell the work.
Vance arrived from the airport in a limousine - a striking man with a classic mouth that properly belonged on a statue, and gray eyes that bore into me with the power of a Satan child. After introductions we sat in my back yard, discussing convention events while the LSD I put in his drink took effect. Once it did, I overpowered him and tied him to a totem I keep. I killed him with two hundred feathered pins - tossing them in to puncture him from his feet up, the last two going through his eyes to his brain. With each toss, I asked him - Is it horror or is it dark fantasy? Too bad his replies were never more than curses, agonized moaning, and babble. Now he hangs here in stiff beauty on his special bough, and the attached manuscript remains incomplete. I really don't know if it is horror or dark fantasy.
Ricky Layton is probably one of the sweetest guys around. He bubbles with warmth and inspiration. In less than half an hour, I felt like I'd been his friend for years. His knowledge of the field is tremendous and he is one of those people that can sit down and quickly write an excellent fright novel. He's a big jump from other writers - we tear our hair out and can never finish the work.
I suppose my best memory of Ricky has to do with his way of spinning intellectual rings around me without making me feel inferior - a wonderful thing in a world of people who all want to be one up on you. His bad reputation has always been very undeserved. If you haven't heard, Ricky is the novelist the censorship lobby always attacks - mainly because of the imitation killings.
Ricky can't be blamed for that - though his usually upbeat expression melts to sadness when he speaks of it. It really is a freedom of expression thing for Ricky. He maintains that he never glamorized suicide. Depression has been a condition he's suffered all of his life. A fight to stay alive. “Damn kids,” Ricky said, as I drove him out to the field, “they imitate every killing I write about. What option do I have? It isn't horror fiction if there are no victims of the evil forces.”
Poor guy, he’d got himself into a state, and his eyes seemed to well with confusion when I parked, handed him a pistol and told him to take a walk in the field.
He did take that walk - but he didn't walk back. Guess it was the depression and finding San and Vance hanging there. Ricky shot himself, and perhaps we shouldn't let the news get out. We wouldn't want people to imitate him, would we?
Remember Sandy Smitherman's famous voodoo tale where a movie director has his cuts to an author's work come back on him. Sandy did well by that story. But he didn't do me a good turn on the story I sent him. In my submission to his Bag of Shining Bones anthology, I asked him to end the story, as I couldn’t complete it. Instead of help, I was cut to pieces bit by bit. It took months to get a one-sentence rejection and seven more letters for a proper explanation. All I wanted was a proper review of my tale and he told me not to submit again. Then when I read the anthology, I noticed that every single writer published in it was a big name, and had attended a recent convention with Sandy.
That whole anthology was a lie. These guys claim they are publishing new talent when they are really just making deals at conventions with name writers. And of course, editors like Smitherman appear in the Free Speech rags to launch lofty attacks on all forms of censorship. The one point not mentioned being that editors cut and censor more material than anyone else. They pimp for publishers; they grab all the top posts and jobs, and use them as a springboard to get ahead. The little guys are bled to death.
When Smitherman arrived at my house I thought I had blasted into the past - he looked so much like a beatnik. But a sophisticated one with a holier-than-thou attitude. His attendance at the convention I had simply bought - money being his prime mover. Blood and money, the blood coming into play when I got him to the field, stripped and switched him with hickory. His was a painful, numbing death - a lot of screaming as I worked him over with the branch. Of course, I waited while the welts and cuts rose, then I opened the largest of them with my hunting knife and watched as he shivered and bled to death.
He begged for his life as I had begged him to help me with my story. Begging did not work for either of us.
The only person to arrive unannounced and uninvited to the convention was an official for a literary union - a big beach-boy type of guy with a mat of blond hair and a California tan. And get this - his face was painted like a Goth. He had his first book of stories with him and I could identify with that - though his tales were all steaming organ and gore tales written in a nerdy first-person style. During breakfast with him, I remained silent, listening to him talk about union stuff. Then I took him out hunting in the field, and when I was the right distance from him I gut shot him with a crossbow. It was a barbed arrow and he was such a big guy he remained standing with his hands on the shaft. Coming to his aid, I seized the bolt and yanked it out. And there were the old steaming organs - blood and slimy blue-pink tissue. There has to be more to a story than this, I said as he collapsed and died. And on the union issue - I've always hated unions that include writers. The first reason being they aren't real unions, the second being nearly all writers in the world are poor because of them. They're all too weak. They all sell out. They‘ve created a world where a few top novelists make all of the money and the rest of us starve. If it were possible, I would kill them all along with every publisher in the industry, and write a new chapter to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Getting one was better than none. I feel much better now……………
Reviewers and critics - three of them showed, and I won't tell you what I did to them. Just be satisfied that it was another gore story with elements of the gross out, involving piano wire, spinning blades and a nail gun. Get to them before they get to you is my motto when it comes to reviewers.
I didn't invite or kill any publishers - in horror they’re nearly all Americans, they’re crooks and bums and everyone knows it. Let's just say their reputation has saved them. The last two were teachers - or should I say writers who teach. Nearly all writers teach; you would think there wasn't another job a writer could do.
No more classes, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks. That's what I said to Janice Elwood just before I opened fire on her with an Uzi. She was an amazingly tough sort of person, continuing to live with a strange scream frozen on her face as the bullets sent blood, skin and bone spurting up like rain.
Her friend Candy I saved for last. And of course, you all know the lovely Candy. The most admired woman at all conventions. She always takes the awards and has more awards than any other writer. And included in that raft of bronze, silver, plastic and glass is my Halloweencon award. A special design it has true beauty - in appearance it is a small head painted with a gasp of terror. The hair stands up in a thousand sharp points, and those points were well received by Candy as I shoved them down her screaming throat.
So now, the star guests have all arrived at Halloweencon Toronto and only the convention itself remains. It’s too bad the larger audience will never find more than empty rooms. They’ll arrive at the hotel, only to find that there isn't a convention - I never arranged the one advertised in the flyers and text posts, though I did arrange gasoline bombs and fire.
Drunks, drugs, costumed fools and the disarray of a horror convention; it’s best to put an end to it all. Call me a Gothic sort of guy - because the real convention is being held out here where the moon silvers the leaves and a haunted house creaks in the darkness.
This is a private mini convention - my first reading.
Inspiration – I’ve completed nearly all of the tales in my first book, which I’ve tentatively titled Halloween Convention Report. And I’ve used my cell phone to invite a select group to this special Halloween reading. They should be arriving soon. Imagine their excitement and mine. Imagine the thrills and chills when I fire up the lights in the pumpkins and draw back the curtain of darkness shielding the boughs.
The masters will look on as they swing from the boughs, and the night and the audience will be at my command.
---The End ---
Grim is Coming to Town
© By Gary L Morton
(Grim Reaper tells a Christmas tale)
Author’s note: I’m not alive or dead or in the past or present. English is not my first language, so stay with me as I try to tell a human sort of tale.
She perished in a catastrophe at one of the Moon-Belt Space Stations. A final freak explosion reduced her remains to radioactive spores of frozen blood.
I showed to collect, finding space an infinitely cold horror. Foolish flesh-and-blood pioneers think they can endure outer space, but I prefer it naked, radioactive, and untamed. Rescuing her vitals in my own style of black hole, I returned and scattered the ashes over December’s northern sky.
In the upper gloom, fire then ice formed a cocoon that kept me secure, and I managed to land wearing a mane of fused snowflakes. I shivered and shook them off. My eyes glossed over with cold tears and at first I saw nothing but charcoal outlines. Raising my head to the sky, I viewed dark streaks brushed into a canvass of dull mercury, and though it was 4:30 in the afternoon, it was so dark it seemed like night had fallen.
Usually I arrive in random city locations as a way to kill boredom. This time I’d picked a forgotten semi industrial zone near Toronto’s waterfront. A spot so dull and destitute it made even the strong feel wretched.
There wasn’t a soul on the narrow street. Snow powder sifted down on a lot filled with frozen mud crust and rusty machinery. I could see Christmas decorations and signs on a new condo & shops tower two blocks away. The rush of distant traffic drifted to my ears, and I gathered that this was one of those tiny pockets of nowhere that exist in every city. The area apparently owned by a stray black cat scampering north to a fence at the end of the lot.
I decided to follow him into the city, but paused to choose my mode of travel. One of the good things about my line of work is having the power to do anything, if it’s required to insure death and the maintenance of the supernatural status quo. Unfortunately, I lack imagination and in modern times, I’ve often turned to comic books and movies for inspiration. It would be possible to … leap into town like the Incredible Hulk … or slide in like the Ice Man … how about adding some sizzle and scorch to those huge corporate ads as the Flaming Torch. Then there’s plain old Superman or Bizarro … or maybe plain old me.
… and that became my decision. Go in on foot and mask myself with the usual cloak of shadows. There really wasn’t a reason to hurry, and I often go for a reflective walk near Christmas.
Exhaling a gust of wind, I tumbled the yellow-painted machinery aside and crossed on a curled lip of frozen mud. A section of the fence slammed into a concrete wall; I went through and around to a wide avenue. Traffic raced in a smoggy underpass. I strolled past a handful of homeless people resting by a fire burning on cement shelves under the steel beams. Rancid odors filled my nose as I reflected on misery. Around the world people perished like flies and my minions didn’t have a sack of black magic big enough to sweep things clean.
Global economics and war favored the extinction of all but the rich celebrity and consumer classes. Even devils lost in this game … innocent bodies piling to mountains, leading to an overcrowded heaven and a hell populated by corporate CEOs, investors, warmongers, terrorists and the guests of celebrity talk shows. Oil, greed, meanness and spite had polluted the environment and were the basis of the contemporary Christmas spirit. As the Grim Reaper and CEO of Death Incorporated I’ve always viewed myself as a nice guy compared to some of them … and of course they all fall into my clutches in the end. Squashing some of the big fish has always been the most enjoyable part of my job.
The scene and my mood began to brighten in the commercial core, beginning with the sparkle and flash of lights in an open area of decorated outdoor trees. A scatter of signs and ads on a street of malls spilled blurred designer neon through swirling snow. The ads spread like tattooed skin, blemishing nearly every open area of public space.
If the denizens of this city were a product of their environment, they were all on sale … but in spite of that they hurried by looking somewhat dazed and frustrated. Many of them were out shopping for presents, and I began to wonder – what to give? There are no letters asking for gifts from me, but every Christmas I give a gift of some kind to the locals … wherever I happen to be.
It’s always an original gift idea … but this year a worldwide recession and the usual mass death had guillotined my imagination and giving mood. Nothing seemed right. I felt more like killing myself and escaping my dirty job. I scratched my throbbing head … hum … what better gift than to finish myself? It would be original, and I’d leave the world devoid of death … or at least technically so. People would still get sick, bodies would fail, but the soul would remain to animate the rotting corpse. It would be ghostly and ghastly immortality, and eternal grief. People would appreciate me, and my past services.
I knew better than to finish myself in a shabby way. It would have to be dramatic. Stopping I searched my empty skull for ideas … and I found none … but I did notice a huge tower and settled on jumping to my death. The CN Tower would be fitting as one of the tallest in the world. I was in town to clean up after a brainwashed American CIA operative posing as a terrorist suicide-bombed a dance club inside a mall … so maybe I could jump there and steal the show with my own death.
And that was the deal. Leap from the tower and descend to the mall. Annihilate myself by crashing through the skylight, upstaging the creep before his bomb detonated. “A great idea,” I thought, cracking my knuckles as I turned down a snow blown alley.
I took the elevator up to the tower restaurant, finding the dining area packed with business types. With me, people usually see what they want to see so I didn’t look out of place … though I did feel out of place.
My last meal was a quiet one with much more wine than food. I never did eat much, which is probably why I’m a bag of bones. The friendly chatter and laughter around me failed to cheer me. I knew that booze was doing the talking. Purposely emptying my mind, I gazed at a pleasant smear of window decorations, frost and city lights. I didn’t want to think or remember. My mental buzz faded, but I remained irritated by a faint odor of death emanating from a few drunken hockey fans at a table nearby.
When the time was right I strolled to the window, raised my arms and used fake lightning … blasting out a circular section. High winds and snow swept in and tore up the tables, and I had to put it all in reverse to get blown out.
An inspirational current of air took me, and I felt some satisfaction in detecting a chain of heart attacks hitting the panicked patrons of the restaurant.
Canyons of colored lights tilted drunkenly below. My coat billowed with wind and flurries and I yelled in celebration, sending out a noisy blast that briefly stopped hearts for blocks on the ground.
A fast stream of wind teased and iced my hair. I used it and my coat as a slow sail, guiding me over the tops of the skyscrapers toward the location fate and death had marked.
Snow swirled into twisted fingers that clutched at the bright tumble of buildings. The thrust of nature seemed to be to hang on … when I had let go.
In a moment of illusion, the entire city took form as a jeweled Christmas decoration, then it trembled and shattered to bones.
The building I approached rose as a random asteroid, a central glass cone shining like crystal among the surrounding towers. I was close enough to see a flow of shoppers swelling to crowds at the revolving doors below. My feelings, like theirs, seemed part of an artificial dream … like maybe I’d wake up and realize I’d been made of wood all along … yet I still sailed on blindly toward that final revelation.
For a long moment, the whole universe felt wonderfully counterfeit … then genuine realization hit me.
“Yikes! I forgot about the part where your life passes before you!”
I choked on a flurried gust as a mightier force took me. A black wave crested in to blind the light. Everybody and that’s every person that had died opened a damp coffin in my memory … bursting forth as an explosion of corpses from a foul graveyard world. Ghostly pale, blue and bruised and battered, spitting out rainbows of tears, pus, venom, blood and vomit as their gaping mouths sought to torment me.
Ghastly legions they trampled and stained my heart and soul. Their vengeful spirits sought gods and devils to devour. An ocean of skulls swam in my brain, making my thoughts waters of pain and loss. So many of them had found some pathetic little reason to live … some poisonous little thread to cling to … and they wanted to hang on and pull themselves back through me.
Hunger stood behind their dreams. It was all they’d ever had … and if they returned, they’d clamp jaws of death from pole to pole.
Their faces rose by the thousands in hideous fireworks … vivid and gut wrenching … John Kennedy shot by his double … Elvis choking on pizza … Hitler eaten by lions in Africa … John Lennon trying to fend off Paul’s knife . . . it overwhelmed me and I blacked out … then I awoke and found myself still falling in the dark.
Various shops and eateries showed under the glass sky-roof below. I looked about for the destined spot – a crowded dance club – aimed for it, and spun head-over-heels in the wind as I collided with three levels of steel and glass.
The impact was merciless. A thousand razor edges sheared my flesh. Wind followed to explode the entire roof behind me, and like the crest of a deadly wave I rode a pounding drumbeat down to the dancers on the floor … hitting them as a stinging rain of blood and needles.
A tremendous mood of rest followed. I felt lifeless, empty, and free at last. Peaceful clouds drifted down a vast sky, and there wasn’t any pain or excitement. Then it ended with the clouds darkening and forming a divine frown.
I woke in the dance club, finding myself on the bar counter … or at least my head was there. The rest of my body had gone AWOL. Most of the people had exited. About twenty remained and they were spattered with blood and working to carry out a few that were wounded. My past power of death seemed converted to a weaker form that created a lot of work for plastic surgeons. I didn’t see any casualties other than myself.
Three burly club security guys scoured the floor, overturning tables in a search for buried victims. One table remained erect and it had a bloody torso on it. They greeted it with frightened stares and backed off. A severed arm and leg appeared when some other gruesome rubble was cleared.
A redheaded man with double earrings in each lobe approached the bar. His eyes widened to pools of black when he saw me. He was about to say something to the others. Then I scowled and his words caught in his throat. Dust helped him choke more as he turned and hurried to the door.
Sirens from approaching rescue vehicles grew louder. The security men went out to meet them, leaving me alone to contemplate my future as a severed head. I viewed it as a crippling disability to say the least. Bad enough that if I didn’t die from it I’d be forced to live on as a revolting wretch that people pitied.
Pulling the plug on me would’ve been the best thing, but the higher powers never were open-minded about euthanasia … and that unfortunate fact got highlighted a moment later with new movement in the room. My right arm was climbing to me and my torso was coming to life. I felt a tenuous connection to it and faint pain that got much worse when it oozed off the table.
It slid to me, leaving a wake of glass and blood. Other body parts and torn bits of flesh and hair followed. So it meant I was getting it all together again in spiritual healing that hurt like hell … or at least my body was giving it a try before being rudely interrupted.
Police burst in … a half dozen of them … the two men in the lead armed with rifles. They saw me and the team leader spoke to the others.
“What is that thing? Is it alive or dead?”
“Better shoot it to make sure,” said a black cop on the right.
“Go ahead, it won’t make any difference,” I said, spinning my head completely around on my neck as I spoke.
Then he aimed the weapon and was about to shoot, but didn’t get the shot off because the side service elevator suddenly opened and the scheduled suicide bomber stepped into the room.
The gun’s aim swung to him. A look of surprise painted his face. “Shit, I forgot about him,” I thought, remembering that he’d been destined to kill nearly everyone in the club, and would have done so had I not interfered. But what the heck, eh ... the reaper is only inhuman and sometimes personal problems get in the way of the job.
A finger tightened on the trigger. A hand went to a button on a belt … then the whole place went up in flames … and I was back on the job. But this time I used my powers and let the rest of the suckers die.
So out on the shadowy street they saw something coming out of the billowing smoke … and they described the explosion like this
… Away from the fire they flew in a flash … and the shout was … on Dasher! Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! … on Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
… to the top of the scrapers … the top of the night … as loose snow before the wild hurricane flies … when it meets with a demon and mounts to the skies
… so up to the stars, lifeless monsters they flew, with the sleigh full of skulls, and dead St. Nicholas too.
… He dressed all in doom, from his horns to his hooves … and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot … a bundle of souls he’d flung on his back, and he looked like Satan opening his pack
... his cheeks were like webbing, his nose like a bone … and from his sleigh, to his team rose a cold whistle, away they all flew like the barbs of a thistle … and we heard him exclaim, ere he shot out of sight … HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!
---The End ---
There is no Rest for the Stupid
© By Gary L Morton
I arrived at work fashionably late as usual. Snowflakes were in my eyes and as I walked up the hill, the Christmas lights of nearby houses melted to a colorful blur. A few steps more and I turned and looked up at my place of work. The castle looked grand with sudden gusts of snow blowing out of the sky and around high crenulated walls. The keep to the south faced the storm from the hilltop like a great battlement. Yet down below was desolation. The parking lot was empty except for one small car; there were no events at Casa Loma this Christmas Eve.
The only event would be me … a midnight security guard, sleeping on the job, raiding the pantry and having dreams of sugarplums, Santa and sexy ladies.
Many stories have been written about lonely people at Christmas, but it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I walked up to the back entrance jingling my keys like it was jingle bells because it was an easy night ahead.
I found Ramone inside waiting by the back security desk. He’d already changed out of his cleaner outfit and was waiting to pass on command of the castle to me. I had a present under my arm that I passed to him and he pointed to a card and a bottle of wine he’d left by the coat rack.
“You can go,” I said. “You don’t have to wait for me to change.”
“The bottle will make you feel better, no,” he said. “You won’t have to worry when he comes out.”
“I quit drinking six months ago, Ramone. Perhaps the master of the house will want some wine. It’s almost midnight,” I said, pointing to the clock.
Sudden fright showed in Ramone’s narrow eyes. “I’m getting out of here, before he comes. Oh, I forgot to tell you. There’s another security guard at the front. Indian fellow named Harjit. He was here for the early evening carol thing. For some reason they told him to stay until his relief arrived. I told him go home. He says he’s booked to watch the door until you take over.”
“Okay. Go home. I’ll get rid of him now.”
“You better do that. You know what happened to last guard from India.”
I always take my time putting on the uniform. I like to look sharp, though no one sees me. Coming out of the change room, I thought about what Ramone had said about the last Indian security guard. A sad story really. You see, I’m not exactly alone here at night. There’s a ghost. Sir Henry by name. He’s the guy that built this castle all those decades ago. Built it and then later went bankrupt. I guess he never wanted to give the place up so he’s still around.
I remember my first shift here nearly a year ago. The previous long-term guard had passed away so I was on my own and taking a short nap in the library. I was rudely awakened by Sir Henry and he wasn’t a howling ghost but a rather aggressive fellow who shook me and asked why I wasn’t on door duty. I looked up at his large moustache and domed forehead, then I tried to push him away … only to find that my hand went right through him.
I got up realizing I was dealing with a ghost of some variety and being a practical person I dealt with it that way. I didn’t have much choice when he could shove me around and I couldn’t push him. I did need the job and running about in a fright wouldn’t do.
I did the door duty and found that Sir Henry went out every second night after midnight and returned an hour or so later. Night haunting of the neighbourhood I suppose. Though sometimes I saw him wandering about the grounds, on the hillside or up on a turret. Other than wanting a doorman to open and shut for his walk, he rarely bothered me. Sometimes he asked me to deliver new books for the library, other times he had messages for the cleaners. He was ruthless in regards to keeping the Queen’s Own Rifles display looking sharp. “The place is now a tourist haunt,” he said. “It has to be seen in proper perspective. Movie shoots are done here, too. I want the place to be tops.”
Most of the time Sir Henry left me sleeping, sometimes he intruded on my meal break for some conversation, but generally the situation worked out perfectly. I had suffered from insomnia and nerves for years but found that at the castle sleep came easy. My health returned, I felt fit in my daytime life. But no one is perfectly healthy and when I had the flu, the guard company sent an Indian fellow, fresh off the plane from Delhi. He said he was a doctor and doing security work until he got his papers updated.
People from over there are like me with a strange power to see ghosts, but unlike me some of them are deathly afraid of them. And that didn’t work out too well with Sir Henry.
This fellow promptly fell asleep and when Sir Henry showed to awaken him, he panicked. As Sir Henry tells it, he ran about the great hall screaming like a madman. At one point, he fell into the old empty swimming pool in the basement. He managed to get out of there and up to the back patio through a hidden wall-walk, and then he went crashing down the hill and tumbled over a steep portion. They found him in the morning. He never recovered as his spine was shattered. He’s in a wheelchair now and has spells where he gibbers about an evil spirit.
Usually I do a full patrol before being sharp at the door for Sir Henry’s return. That’s a walk up to the towers and all the way through the underground tunnel to the stables. The castle has three large floors and many rooms with displays. The solar is quite impressive. Everything is antique and valuable, but I have a memory for all of it. One time I found a sword missing. Turned out some people had walked out with it in broad daylight.
I started the patrol but got nowhere on it because an alarm rang then shut back off. I knew the area and went straight through the library and out to the back patio. I spent a long time searching the grounds but found nothing until I returned and noticed a security vehicle over in the lot entry. A moment later, I spotted a very large security guard walking over by the flowerbeds.
“Damn,” I cursed. “It’s Arnold B. Smithers, the mobile patrol man.”
The security company had recently cursed me with surprise mobile visits, sending in a 300-pound snoop to check up on me. Arnold B. Smithers’ job was to make sure guards were in uniform, not asleep, and doing their patrols. No doubt, he’d been sneaking about checking patrol points to see if they were checked off recently. Being a huge boob, he set off an alarm.
I felt anger rise as I walked across the snowy lot to him. “I will not swear at him. I will be polite,” I said to myself. But in spite of that, I was pissed. My dream job was going sour … my beautiful sleep and health being taken away by a baton-wielding thug who took the job far too seriously. Being Christmas Eve, I decided I would buy him off by re-gifting my bottle of wine. That would do for tonight but unless I could get him driving drunk another long-term solution would be needed.
Arnold reminded me of Sir Henry in a way; a big bullying white guy. His uniform was always perfect. He wore a big oak baton and always had a bottle of compressed pepper spray on his belt. He had a high domed forehead like Sir Henry as well, though his speech was not as sophisticated.
“Well, well. I see we’re awake tonight,” Arnold said.
Before I got a chance to answer, we heard a scream. And not any ordinary scream, but the sound someone being murdered would make.
From our position, there were two key entrances. “Arnold pointed to the entrance to the kitchen and guard station. “I’ll cover that. You go in the main entrance and check it.”
“Will do,” I said dutifully, running straight for the arched entrance, being about halfway there before realizing that Arnold had sent me running right to the scream while he was actually running away from it. I didn’t stop but kept on and reached the doors. They were secure so I opened up with keys and entered the vestibule cautiously.
A long search of the castle followed. I kept hearing banging and scraping here and there but I did not encounter Arnold or anyone else. About halfway through the search I remembered the other guard Ramone said was on site. The Indian guy, but I didn’t spot him either.
I ended up back at the front doors, scratching my head and wondering where Arnold and Harjit could possibly be hiding. While I thought about that, a familiar fellow came up the walk. It was Sir Henry returning from his night out. I got the door and nodded.
“Looks like I gave that other fellow quite the scare,” he said. “Some of those foreign fellows just don’t have the Christmas spirit. By the way, a few guests will be arriving later so don’t go to sleep tonight. Have some wine with us. I’ve opened the cellar.”
Sir Henry walked away to the library. And as he did, I heard another bloodcurdling scream. This was definitely from upstairs, probably the third floor. Running up, I turned, and then slowed as I saw someone standing near the stair entrance that ran up to the keep. He was wearing a security guard uniform and didn’t weigh 300 pounds so he had to be Harjit. He was looking down at something.
With my confidence partially returned, I walked up. When I saw what he was looking down at I almost screamed myself.
Gasping, I staggered back … Arnold B. Smithers was at the foot of the stairs, on his back, a ghastly expression on his face, his mouth open with a spill of thick blood like a tongue. A spike had been driven right into his forehead.
Harjit was gibbering like an idiot child. I looked him in the eye. He was out of his mind with fright. I could see that.
“Jeez,” I said. “You just killed our mobile supervisor, and on Christmas Eve. You’re finished pal. That’s cold-blooded murder.”
Only it didn’t turn out quite that way. I finally calmed Harjit by taking him to the bathroom and splashing water on his face. He explained things and it turned out it was death by misadventure. One hysterical guard fleeing a ghost grabbed a spike in the gardener’s storage and killed another security guard he thought was the ghost.
We decided to cover it up and clean it up. We dragged Arnold back to his vehicle and left him on the ground outside the driver’s side. Needless to say, he didn’t look his finest with a spike through his head and staring dead eyes. Didn’t smell very Christmassy either.
You know the old saying about there being no rest for the wicked. And now I’m paying dearly for the cover-up. The police never figured it out. We told them we heard a scream and found him there. Persons unknown are the main suspects. The core problem here is though I got rid of the body, I didn’t get rid of the man.
Christmas has passed and Sir Henry goes in and out as usual. I raid the kitchen to pilfer my lunch as usual. But the problem is that I can’t get any sleep because now there are two ghosts in this place.
It was okay for New Years Eve because many ghosts showed, but now that has passed and I can’t catch a wink of sleep. Every time I start napping boot steps come up the hall. It’s Arnold B. Smithers and he’s still doing his job, making sure I stay awake, keep my uniform sharp, and do my patrols.
I have a gun that I’ve always kept hidden on site. I tried shooting Arnold already but that didn’t work. So I’m looking at the Glock pistol now. It would certainly end things quickly and my new idea is to sleep peacefully in the grave.
I’ve tried to pull the trigger but I can’t, because the thought keeps hitting me that I might come back as the third ghost here. And then I wouldn’t get any sleep for all of eternity. There is no rest for the stupid.
© By Gary L Morton
Sweet smoke stung Ravi’s eyes and the city lights cascaded like diamonds in his teardrops. He snatched the roach from his lips as its rough end popped. Sparks showered his face. Tripping over a low hedge, he landed on his back in spongy grass.
Warm air shook the cherry blossoms and glittering star points flashed in the rolling clouds above. With the starlight came the EEGs of a stranger and feelings that used words as vents. Something wonderful caused him to stand up and embrace the velvety darkness. Two moons vibrated and became one, and then a delicious odor of baked goods touched him.
He looked across the yard and the condominium complex looked back with a hungry jumble of bright alien eyes. His stomach growled, shaking angry juices. He decided to buy some munchies and go upstairs. Moving in the purple night toward a side door, he thought, “Why contemplate an overdose again? It could be worse, like I could be a maniac or something instead of just an unemployed loser.”
A porcine security guard with a lazy stare was slumped on the desk. Ravi strolled out of the concourse, passed the guard, and crossed the painfully bright lobby clutching a paper sack of munchies against his chest. A potato-chip autumn blew in his mind, drool and fangs were in his stomach, but like a wild beast, he needed privacy while devouring his meal.
A blond woman, her hips tilted sweetly, stood by the elevators. He slowed abruptly and his eyes shone like lanterns, taking in the creamy skin of her thighs and shoulders. Her little red summer dress set his brain smoldering, and he bit his lip as he pictured her naked beneath a tree fern. She glanced at him and he forced a smile over his grimace, looking like the stereotype of a weirdo as he came to a stumbling halt.
The word TART was written on her face in layers of thick make-up. “Hey guy,” she said with the forwardness of a hooker. “You been drinking poison or something?”
“I never drink anything cheap. It was just a flashback of my ex-wife's face.”
“Think you're cool stuff, huh?”
“I wish I thought that way.”
Her eyes were innocent blue, but they cut into his heart. He knew she could see he was a faker and nothing more. What would be left of his ego tomorrow? - the elevator rattled open - maybe just a pile of scraps on the elevator floor, and people would carefully step over him like always.
Her body language sucked him into the elevator, and she hit button fifteen. “I'm on thirteen,” he said, pressing button 13. “Only two floors from you. Quite a coincidence, eh?”
She looked at him icily, in the way women look at the dirtier half of the living dead, and she was about to say something when the elevator began to bounce up and down like a sardine can Zeus was shaking. It settled and the door banged open, revealing an earthen pit filled with boards and junk. A rat was about to board. She screamed and he spilled bags of popcorn and chips as he hit the close button.
“What in the hell! - we're at the bottom of the shaft,” he said, and then his mouth fell open as he watched her breasts swell with a deep breath. He hit the numbers again and the elevator began to bounce its way back up.
The elevator steadied and inched on up the shaft like a beetle. The lady had her arms crossed and she looked panicky. He wanted to say something reassuring, but his brain was meatloaf, then the lights blinked out. The car stopped on a dime and a hum dropped down the shaft. Total silence remained. Screaming took over. His groceries were knocked out of his hands, razor-sharp nails slashed at him and he fell against the side wall, sliding to the floor under the force of the assault. Mustering his strength, he tackled the woman and forced her down. He gripped her wrists. She squirmed for a moment, and then she began to weep.
“I'm terrified of elevators,” she choked.
“Don't be frightened. I won't hurt you. I've been smoking dope.”
“Get me off this bullshit elevator!”
“Hey, you all right in there!” yelled a man with a gravely voice.
“No, we're stuck!” she hollered back.
“Sorry, but I can't help you - it's a blackout. I gotta guard my store downstairs. I'll see if I can find someone to get you out.”
“Wait, you can't leave us here!” she sputtered. When there was no reply, she sighed out a shivering ghost and collapsed.
“Oh great,” Ravi muttered. “A blackout. It could last all night if not longer.” Deciding it wouldn't hurt to be comfortable he pulled her against him and let her head rest on his chest. He found a chocolate bar next to him and ripped away the wrapper with his teeth. He took a bite and as he chewed on the sticky caramel, fear grew in his mind. “Maybe it's more than a blackout; maybe it's nuclear war.” Demonic apparitions peppered him with howls as they whirled in the darkness. “The big one and nuclear winter,” he mumbled as the wicked apparitions mocked him and burst into hellish flames. Fire burned on ice and he could see vicious new species of rats, flies and roaches swarming through drifting poison gas and endless mounds of charred corpses. Wide-eyed, he took another bite of his chocolate bar. Suddenly the woman snorted loudly and stirred.
She snapped to an upright posture. “Oh-no!” she exclaimed.
“Oh-yes,” he said.
Somewhat adapted to dark confinement she moved back beside him. “So are we being rescued or what?”
“No word yet.”
“You're single aren't you?” she said softly, rubbing the inside of his leg.
“Sort of - the wife took off a year ago. What about you?”
“My husband's criminally insane; he'll never be released. A thing about body parts. He once brought me a--”
“It's terrible to be alone,” Ravi said, clenching his fists. “When women reject me I feel like - feel like --” He succumbed to her kisses.
Time slipped pleasantly by, then a man laughed - his voice was gravely. “Hey, what's goin’ on in there? I could use some of that.”
There was some hasty movement in the elevator. “Did you find help?” the woman asked in a hopeful tone.
“Yeah, I ran across some Joe helping people next door with his pry bar. He don't talk much, but I'm sure he can force the door. I gotta get back to my store. I'll leave the lantern and Joe can get to work.”
He was sorry about getting out; he let his mind fall in the darkness and his hand wander on her thigh. A loud hammering on the door made them both jump. “Joe,” he said. “You're supposed to force it open, not hammer it down.”
“I hope this guy knows what he's doing,” the woman said.
Loud creaking replaced the hammering and a crack of flickering light showed as the metal groaned and gave way. Joe had the strength of an ox, but he didn't know how to apply a lever. He put big gashes in the outer door; he was like a moron opening a can with a screwdriver.
Finally Joe got brighter, slipped his pry bar in the crack and forced the door halfway open. They ducked out quickly and turned to thank him. The woman gasped. In the lantern light, Joe looked like a creature from the bottom of a mineshaft. He was a squat, lumpy guy with swollen blue lips and a porous red-veined bump for a nose. Lifeless hair hung like cobwebs from a head checkered with bald patches. His eyes were like little black olives in pools of moldy margarine, and he grinned witlessly, showing crooked yellow teeth.
“Darling,” the woman said, almost choking. “How did you get out?”
“You mean that guy's your mad husband?”
Joe's grin widened. “The electric fence, the electric fence - no power,” he blubbered. “Look.” He set the pry bar down and reached for an enormous dent-covered toolbox. Loosening up some snaps, he lifted out something large and held it up in the lantern light. It was a heavy meat hook, a human foot hung from it - blood dripped to the carpet from the toe of a nylon stocking. “For you, for you,” he said feverishly.
They took steps back, turned and fled into the dark stairwell. They were down a few flights before they heard Joe's heavy boots ringing above. His crazed voice echoed, “Paint the town red, paint it black and blue!”
The woman threw the side door open and they raced off under the cherry blossoms. An apparition of a ghastly head swinging on a meat hook vanished in the moonlight as Joe appeared. He looked around, but they were gone, dashing into a lovers' darkness he would never find.
---The End ---
Murder Laundromat Inc.
© By Gary L Morton
Let me tell you about something a friend of my mother told her cousin-
Huh, Jack. That's no way to start a scary story.
Who in the hell are you? I don't see anyone?
I'm the funny voice you've been hearing for years, Jack.
Oh, you. Well, try not to cause problems. Let's begin again. --There'd been reports of evil Elvis angels in the snow that year, so it came as no surprise when he heard a werewolf howling at his window that morning.
You’re right Jack, and that howling skirled up so high and sharp his backbone shattered like an icicle.
And his teeth chattered as he crossed that desolate snow-blown highway out front of Murder Laundromat Inc.
For some reason he was startled when he found the place empty, but not so empty that invisible eyes weren't everywhere on the walls.
And this was no enchanted dance floor he saw before him. It was a grimy, gritty, soap-and-bloodstained floor that was smeared and running with slime like Godzilla snot.
Of course it was at that moment that he heard a ghostly, ghastly cry -- Ooh-ah, Ooh-ah!
Sort of like the cry you'd make if someone hacked off your hand with an iodine-soaked cleaver.
And then one of the laundry machines started by itself, rolling and thundering round in rumbles loud enough to bust pack ice.
Something dark and evil was behind that steamy porthole, he knew. And snapping a cloth out of his laundry basket he went over and rubbed the glass clear for a better look.
And as he rubbed, the lights blinked and a face flashed behind the glass. A hideous face; the face of a genie.
Then terror hit him. Flakes of dead skin stood up like scales on the back of his neck. That genie was the spitting image of long dead Saddam Hussein.
That's right, Jack. The genie didn't shave, and he knew that if Saddam was around he stood a good chance of getting blown to smithereens by some of them bearded Yiddish guys.
What? Bearded Yiddish guys? Hold it, that's no way to build suspense. There is nothing scary about bearded Yiddish guys. If you're going with Saddam, go with him - make him a goddamn axe-murdering monster.
Jack, this is hardly the place for gore and yellow journalism.
Okay, okay -- nevertheless, Saddam genie disappeared and our hero yelled, Whatthefu. . . ledtjdidd . . . ! And this was because in place of Saddam, he saw hundred dollar bills fluttering. It was a miracle washing machine, drying a load of hundred dollar bills.
Needless to say, he opened the washer to snatch those bills, only all he saw was a swirling pit of purple prose.
And Saddam genie was in there, laughing wickedly.
One swift movement and Saddam genie had his arm, pulling him in.
Then the scene changed and he saw a bad zombie movie and a blood soaked sign that spelled MURDER LAUNDROMAT INC., YOU'RE SNUFFED PAL.
Lightning scritched, rains of soap slashed him, then the world was a gearbox.
Big grinding razor gears that were turning his arms into hamburger, bone bits and pieces of crap that looked like something a torturer might peel from your spleen.
It was then that he realized what the stains and Godzilla snot were - they were the left-behinds of people who'd gotten the gears.
God it was a nightmare -- his shoulder caved in like a Crispy Crunch bar as he was inched further inside.
His screams echoed up and rent the sky above that place called Murder Laundromat Inc.
Demons ripped at piano wires.
Time stood still so that the eyes watching him from the walls saw him being chewed up in slow motion.
Then Saddam genie appeared, laughing wickedly as he ripped at the cord of a chainsaw.
But when it wouldn't start, he put it in a dryer and said- Cut off the hands of the thief! Cut out the tongue of a liar!
And the gears sped up with the sound of his voice, and quicker than an Arabian knight, he lurched forward and shoved our hero into the gears.
It was garbage-disposal city as a green-pink rain of bloody goo showered the wild Saddam genie. And for our hero it was the--
It was the Twilight Zone. Out of that pit of purple prose like a man shot from a canon he came whirling, tumbling and sliding under the neon signs depending from a sky never-ending in a world dead-ending in the--
Not the goddamn Twilight Zone!
Yes and not a place like in all those horror stories where it just looks like the Twilight Zone. It was the real zone. The neon signs said TWILIGHT ZONE, and as he ran into those blue magic lights, on to paradise and into the beyond we all call the unknown -- into nightmares--
Wait a moment. Nobody takes a meat grinder to the Twilight Zone. You can't end a story like that.
Why not? How would you end it?
Me? Well -- A mound of lung-heaving green tissue slipped through Murder Laundromat Inc., hungry for victims as Saddam genie stepped out front into the howling wind. There he posed beside a wooden Indian and froze. Lights twinkled in icicles, his eyes and off his scimitar. Will he strike again? Is there anyone who can stop Saddam genie?
Say, do you hear that sound?
Yeah, a voice saying, Who put the bop in the . . . .
Right, it's the magic language of the Old Ones calling us to Cuthulu.
We'll never get good reviews with this shit.
You want good reviews. Okay, we'll change the ending again. Make it one of those offbeat literary fiction endings the critics rave about.
-- In the emptiness of that human wilderness, there was incest between a man and his dog. Without warning, a runaway train struck them both. When the conductor got out and looked at that mess, he knew that his life, and indeed all of our lives, have never been more than the reflection of blood on ice.
That's great, Jack . . . good night.
---The End ---
© By Gary L Morton
I turned my head quickly and shot a glance through the window. There he was; that mad clown, smiling broadly in the autumn woods. My thoughts felt like they were surfing on a weird feeling. He was up to something; I knew he was, but every time I looked, he was standing still, like a clown statue, beaming smiles at the sun.
I returned to my work for a while, and then a shiver of fear crawled up my spine. I became tormented with the thought that I was someone who couldn't remember who he was. As a counter I imagined myself at home in Atlantis. Tidal waves swept in and I was surfing on that weird feeling again. I glanced back at the clown. He wasn't moving; he was motionless; he was up to something I couldn't catch him at . . .
It was late afternoon; an antique sun glowed in the jet trails. Since it was autumn I was Tezcatlipoca once again, naked as the rustling leaves of lost times. Sunbeams filtered through the boughs and I wondered why there was a bright window in the forest, then I looked at a rainbow in the glass and remembered how I had once wished it was yesterday.
I fell out of my reverie and shot a glance out the window. There he was; that mad clown. It was unbelievable; he was laughing like an escapee from the funhouse and waving my reputation at me with his white-gloved hand. He carelessly stuffed it in his back pocket and ran off in the forest, leaving a trail of echoing laughter.
I lost control of my eyes and lungs and I tried to think, but dripping water was the only thing that would come to mind. The door was locked so I knocked it down and crashed into the forest in hot pursuit, running so fast that I passed bounding hares as though they were standing still. The leaves tore like parchment as I tore madly onward.
While catching my breath, I saw him cart wheeling to and fro in the distance. I rushed toward him. He disappeared then. Looking around I spotted him; he’d disguised himself as a grinning buzzard and was perched on the highest limb of a dead lynch-mob's oak.
Approaching him I yelled, “Return my reputation you clown thief! Or I'll take it by force!” His eyes blazed with lies. I grabbed the bole of the tree and rocked it, trying to shake him down, but it was like he was glued there.
I climbed the tree in descending twilight, slowly moving upward toward him, but it grew dark and I lost him in the branches. Carefully moving through thick screens of dead leaves, I finally caught him. Keeping a stranglehold on him, I looked for my reputation; it fluttered from under his wing and ballooned up into the night sky. Furious, I flogged some branches with him and tossed him over my shoulder for luck, and then I looked for my reputation and found it in the heavens.
The constellations spelled reputation in bizarre calligraphy. Each star pulsed rays of reputation. Comets of reputation swept across the sky. Meteors, dwarf stars, black holes, entire galaxies and nebulae exploded in a kaleidoscope of colored reputation. The breeze riffled through the trees and filled my ears with a whisper of reputation. Psychic vibrations and rumbles of reputation from the fault lines caused my bones to ache. All of the creatures of the land and sea appeared before me as reputations. Atlantis, earthquakes and volcanoes burst and showered me with magma of reputation.
I was staring out the window; that mad clown was strolling away. He hadn't done anything I thought he would and he kept beaming those smiles at the sun. A weird feeling kept making me wonder what he'd done to me, then I felt the way you used to feel and knew I would dress up as you once again.
UPBEAT AND OUT
© By Gary L Morton
When I was free it was like I'd corked a big sky in a bottle and swallowed it, and I was real big. I was out there surrounding everything. Evil old me like the fiery edge of the universe. Sure, I was big stuff -- you have to be big to get stowed away forever. If you're not so big, the suckers weep and say there's some hope for you yet. And you're soon free if you're small-time, but there are no more good old days and times. Instead, you got large screws in your skull like a low-budget Frankenstein monster, and all you do is waltz. Hell, I should be proud of myself -- I've done more than a fair share of time for those last six killings. I didn't beg, no sir. I could do a thousand years and keep a straight face.
But I got an attitude problem. I'm too downbeat. Hey, it's easy to be like volcanic rock. I should be seeing guiding stars like other cons do. Yeah, I'll try some upbeat thinking. It'll help pass the time. Now, let's see. Where do I begin? -- Oh yeah. I'm gonna get out soon, Johnny. You'll see, pal. I'm lucky. My gal's still carrying a torch for me; she's been true all these last twenty years. And I won't have any trouble finding honest work, bosses are asking for guys like me all the time. Hum . . . then I burst into song, “Please release me, let me go! . . . release me and let me kill again!” Ha! Ha!
This is a riot, being upbeat. I'm out of the hole now. Look at all I got. I got a window, and I can see the trees, street and sky -- and with my new good attitude . . . what can I say? It's like only a moment ago, I had hate boiling in my guts, and then spring came. Now I feel as light as a fairy tiptoeing around loving everything without touching it . . . for fear of killing it with black magic. Rehabilitated, that's what this kid is - heaven is calling -- “Remember the devil with the red dress on?” they're saying. “Well, he's our boy now.”
Wow! Would you look at that. It's an obese jerk strolling through the park. Look at those plastic shoes. Now a clever chap like him isn't going to cross the street and head down the other way like all the rest. No sir, not him, 'cause he has my walking papers in his wallet. I bet he's gonna waltz in here, slam his grubby paw down, and say he's taking me out of this hole in the wall.
What? I don't believe it. My new attitude must be magic. He sees me in the window, and he's grinning - it's good news. He's coming inside. I bet it's just a matter of formalities and I'm gone. I better be quiet and listen to what he tells the screw.
“Hey, Jack! How much is that new witch doctor's mask in the window? It'll sure look great on me on Halloween, won't it?”
“. . . send me dead flowers every morning . . . send me dead flowers by US mail . . . and I won't forget to put roses on your grave . . . .” Ha! The old mask is upbeat and out again.
© By Gary L Morton
Reg sipped his fair trade coffee quietly, thinking his bloodshot eyes and stiff muscles to be a comfort compared to the guilt gnawing at his soul. He wanted to have a good opinion of himself, but the only self-image he could entertain was dark -- corpse black-and-blue. Something had rotted inside, either weakness of personality or weakness of the flesh. He wasn't sure what it was; but he knew that the vision of what he'd become was a sluggish nightmare and he would carry on with it.
Beyond the burger joint's steamy window a field of weeds shook with wind and rain. It was rain that never ended and it had dampened his action this summer … like everywhere he went he got mud in his eye as an increasingly smaller pool of potential victims disappeared like fluttering raincoats into the gloom. Most of this stretch of Scarborough was suburban in appearance but this was a dead-end where high-rises and some weeds trespassed over the borderline to grow tall and unwanted. Scarborough was a sort of faceless place of mixed races; people that seemed to blend together into uniform blandness. Reg liked to blend into the scenery in faceless places, like part of their null history. He‘d drift on the streets until he did what he had to do, then he’d disappear into bone-white oblivion, waiting for inner darkness to wake him again.
His favorite oldie floated moodily from the radio, but it wasn't really a good day to think about Scarborough Fair. He got up, dumped his tray and left, banging the door. The wind and slashing rain tore at his hunting outfit. Waves of rain whipped across his dented Ford. His mind was becoming a dismal blank, it always did after a killing; an image of the little boy's battered body in his trunk flashed in his thoughts, then things went blank again.
Bleached white sky illumined the lake as black clouds drifted on the horizon. The narrow gravel road he turned down rested in misty gloom. The road ran along a lonely mostly hidden stretch of the bluffs, and the heavy rains had made the area a sudden swamp. He looked for familiar landmarks in the fields of bland mud, but could find none. The feeling was that this place existed in the bowels of Scarborough and every other windy lakeside city in the world.
With disappointment curling his lips, he stopped by a row of dead oak trees near the edge of the bluffs. Exposed roots gripped the mud like the talons of a griffin. Behind the trees, a pond lay like melted chocolate. The pond's bottom would digest a body well; he decided to dispose of it there and got out.
A warm moist wind blew off the water, but it was an ill wind, like the breath of a zombie. Since the mud was soft, dragging the body would be the easy way. As he did the work he noticed that Lake Ontario was stained and rolling with muck for quite a ways out.
His spade cut into the mud, knifing too deep. He halted for a moment; the body's gory face was causing his breakfast to leap so he took a moment and turned it. The mud was heavy and the hole immediately filled back in when he lifted the shovel, so he decided it would be better to get some rocks and sink the body out under a few inches of water.
“Damn!” he said as he noticed that his rubbers had gone down a couple inches in the mud. Reaching down he held his right rubber as he lifted his foot. The suction power of the ooze made for a loud pop as his foot came out.
Thrown off balance, he nearly fell, and he found himself unable to regain his footing. Suddenly and silently, his whole world began to shake. Looking up he saw the oak tree in front of him tilt and pull a section of earth with it as it began to slide down the bluff. It was a mudslide, and a shift of the mud knocked his feet free. He fell on his butt.
Jabbing his hands into the mud, he used them as an anchor and rode the slide like it was a giant toboggan. As he screamed vile names at the gods, he could see that the slide was headed for a flat span that topped a second steep wall of the bluffs. The frothy lake and certain death were beyond the wall.
With a jolt and an incredible blubbering of ooze, the slide halted on the second wall of the bluffs. The oak tree tilted out over the water, swinging roots and branches like dripping tentacles. Reg turned over to his knees and looked up the slide. A big swell of softer ooze was flowing over the top edge. To save himself he turned to face the lake and dug in up to his knees. He stood up and the ooze flowed around him, slowly rising up his ribs, touching him like a filthy molester. Then water came pouring down and he held his breath as the contents of the shallow pond raced over him.
Waves lifted, broke into silted foam and seethed against the bluff wall. Reg was up to his armpits in mud, and the stuff stank like an outhouse. The pressure on his torso hurt like a gut punch. He tried to squirm, but found that he couldn't lift himself out. Panic and slime turned his dirty hair to hog bristles. He hollered for help, and found that hollering caused the mud to close and cut off his air. It left him choking, taking shallow breaths.
The slop began to percolate and splatter in his face; some sort of swamp gas was bubbling up, sour and rancid. A blob shot in his right eye and his hands fought in vain to reach it. He was afraid the gross gas would cause him to vomit and choke to death.
A torrent began, rain showered down, cleansing his eyes and face. When the downpour eased his eyes began to dart about, looking for hope like a trapped animal might look for hope. A buzzing sound circled his head and he went cross-eyed. A fat mosquito had lighted on his nose. He watched full of misery as the bug grew even fatter, and he felt like one of the kids he'd killed -- twisted in the clutches of something as abominable as it was unbelievable.
The mosquito flew off and he found himself staring straight ahead at an object rising out of the mud. Belching gas lifted it higher and higher. Mud streamed from it and Reg saw that it was a corpse. It had been in the slop a while and was badly bloated, swelling with pus and rot -- a mass of raw maggoty flesh and exploded veins. And it stank so bad that Reg choked and grimaced as he tried to hold his gorge down.
It rose to its hips and had a belly that had fattened to enormous size and was splitting like a rotten vegetable. Violet intestines emerged from the tear, hatching out on the mud like snakes. They were connected to a football-sized spleen gone slime green. Gobs of congealed gore, a slab of brown liver and a big red tongue of heart muscle followed; the whole thing a gross chimera of death and its ugliest decay.
Reg felt ill. All of his life he'd been an admirer of human organs, but this was incredibly different and disgusting. He'd always kept his body parts in locked sanitized containers, where he had power over them. Organs on the loose were one his worst fears.
Terror showed in his dilated eyes as the spleen and intestines slid toward him, but the spleen never reached him -- instead it exploded, throwing a wad of rotten tissue against his lips. Vomit rose and he choked horribly, certain that it was over, but after a few moments of flaming lungs and long rasps he was still alive.
A staring eyeball poked out of the mud in front of him and a heavy weight was pressing on his stomach. More swamp gas rose. As the eyeball continued to stare, the pressure rose up to his chest, and then he was rising slowly, propelled by the gas. He floated to his hips, his arms came free and he grinned hopefully.
Then another object began to rise in front of him and he tried to hold it down in case it was something foul. He failed and it continued to rise until ooze flowed off it, revealing it to be the dead little boy.
“Why can't you stay buried, you rotten kid!” he shouted, shaking the corpse violently. Then he saw the tree moving and knew the slide was loose again. The oak tree slipped over the wall and the boy's corpse pressed against him as the slide slopped forward. Reg had the corpse by the shoulders, and it was jabbing at him with stiff limbs as he tried to shove it away. He continued struggling with it as the slide took him down the bluff wall and on to the bottom of the lake.
Reg managed to hold his breath as he went under and he saw air bubbles and the boy's corpse floating in the cloudy water above. He pumped his legs, trying to speed the melting of the mud at his feet, then waves of blindness hit him and he was rising. His lungs were a balloon about to burst. He expected to see his life pass before him, but instead he saw that old self-image again, himself as a corpse. This time he was swollen and splitting to slime in the algae at the shore. And this time it was the kids who were alive, dancing and skipping on the rocks as they poked him with sticks of driftwood.
© By Gary L Morton
Billy Bob's eyes burned - dry and bloodshot orbs. Spots floated, he thought he saw a skull-and-crossbones symbol on the sign . . . but what was there was a bump warning.
The pick-up rocked with gravel grinding into the fenders. He was headed for swamp soup, muck, ducks, and cattails.
A patch of mud spun him back onto the road and he began to think. “Gotta keep my mind off her. Tallulah is dead because I had to get her out of my life. All she ever did was play bingo then come home and bitch. Bingo! bingo! bingo! gets you bang! bang! bang!”
Blood thundered in his ears as he pounded the dash, and to his dismay, he silenced the radio. Then when he looked up, he saw that he was coming up fast on a police car. Of course he was on the wrong side of the road and twenty over the limit, but he didn't panic. He let the sheriff flag him down and slid to a stop.
“. . . I sure will get her in for a safety. Don't you worry, Sheriff,” Billy Bob said. “Say, I gotta meet a friend in town, so I better mosey along.”
Billy Bob's eyebrows were sweat dams; he sloshed the hot liquid away as he drove off. A long chat with the sheriff hadn't been in the plan, but now it was too late. If Tallulah's body was discovered the lousy cop would remember seeing him. Checking the rearview mirror, he saw the beefy sheriff crossing the road to a footbridge that ran over a pond. Three shackled cons were doing work on the bridge. Billy Bob wasn't a genius, but he knew the sheriff's brand of chain gang labor was unduly cruel. The sad part was that he'd picked this area for a dump because there were no cops, or there hadn't been in the past. Now that funding for local police had been chopped, and money saving chain gangs were back, small towns were hiring cheap-ass sheriffs. And if this guy was an example - city accent, keeps men in heavy irons, gives tickets to motorists passing the gang, and calls a bird pond an alligator hole - what a pain in the butt these sheriffs were going to be.
Now that he thought back, the men hadn't been your usual cons either. He remembered one guy screaming about cannibals hiding in the swamp. The sheriff had shut him up by rifle-butting him. “You killed your wife and boiled her, that's why you’re a con.”
It was unsettling; he saw will-o'-the-wisp mist and the endless reeds of the swamp clouding his alibi. Tallulah's corpse rode to the surface of his mind. Finally he stopped on the shoulder, his idea being to go back and clear-up the problem. The sheriff had said they were camping out. If he could sneak back and set the cons loose, the cops would do a search of the area and think they were Tallulah's killers, when her body turned up.
The sun sank faster than a swamp rat and it was dark by the time Billy Bob got back. Being wise, he parked a ways back and approached on foot, finding the police car and the sheriff's prison trailer gleaming with firelight. He could see the cons sleeping by the fire. Only the cannibal con appeared to be awake; he was looking at the night, his eyes like splotches of ink on dead yellow parchment.
The sheriff had obviously shackled them and then nodded off in his trailer. It was time for Billy Bob to move, creep up, loose the cons and shoot the sheriff with his own rifle.
Only the plan didn't go smoothly. As he crept out of the shadows, he met a gun barrel. It was the cannibal; he'd been loose all along. Knowing this guy would shoot, Billy Bob put his hands up.
“Keep 'em high,” the cannibal said, looking sober and mean. “I killed the sheriff, and I'll kill you too.”
“I'm no friend of the sheriff. I was going to kill him and set you free.”
“Yeah, if that's the case you got an invite to dinner. Sit down, but don't try anything funny or I'll shoot.”
“Say, pal,” Billy Bob said, wondering what the cannibal was eating. “I hope that's not the sheriff you're cooking in that pot?”
“Hell no, the sheriff is resting in peace. Him and my buddies. Oh, I forgot to mention it - they're dead too. I cut their throats. But before they died, they brought back a little meat. A little something the sheriff bagged out in the swamp. Most of the carcass is under the tarp. I'll show you.”
The cannibal was as thin as sticks, and he moved like a cat in his baggy clothes. With a quick stroke, he pulled the tarp away, revealing the body of a woman. The head had been severed and set on a plate. It was positively ghastly - slime-swollen eyes, tongue fat and green as a bloated rat, mud and firelight creating ghoulish makeup.
“Oh-no!” Billy Bob thought. “It's Tallulah! They've pulled her out of the swamp!”
. . . . . . . . Dinner was getting colder and the cannibal was getting meaner. “Come on, fella. Stop babbling about the bingo and saying dead, dead, dead. I want you to eat all of your dinner. I get mighty riled when folks won't eat with me.”
--- The End ---
© By Gary L Morton
Marvin snuffed his cigar and studied the bucolic scene below. Odors of clover and hay bales lifted his nostrils. A rocky hill, thick with sumac and scrub, stood on the far side. He looked from boulder to boulder, and then he detected movement in the sumac - a brief flash of red.
The Uzi was out of ammo so now he was left with a few slugs for the Remington, and his Bowie knife. It had to be enough for the kill. Picking up, he dashed down the eroded hillside, heading for a small barn halfway across the field. He'd almost reached it when a cow in front of him suddenly blew up - buckets of flying blood milk, something soft and wet whipped his face. But he kept running, drenched in cow gore.
It was locked - Damn! Raising the Remington he fired as he ran, blowing the rusty lock and half the door away. Then he was inside in the musty shade.
“Shit, he's got a grenade launcher,” Marvin said as he took cover at the rear. This was a bad situation. To finish Jimmy he had to get close enough to lay in with the Remington, which meant running a gauntlet of grenades.
And he didn't even get time to get out the door. Grenades hit the barn taking out the south wall. Splinters and burning hay ripped into his left side as he jumped. Once out he ran for the hillside and Jimmy, zigzagging as grenades blew to his left and right.
Luck was with him, he got to a small slate outcropping. It had several large boulders that would allow him to move under cover. Collapsing in the shadow of a rock, he checked his wounds. The Kevlar had saved his upper body, but the left side of his face was roasted, shooting with hot needles. Blood poured on his scorched leg, which was mostly numb, the pain just beginning to come on.
If he died now it would be unforgivable. He'd taken shit from Jimmy all his life. Jimmy, the boss. Always kicking him, always mocking him, and pushing him. This was his chance, Marvin's chance to blast the bastard to pieces - to shut the sucker up.
Jimmy's voice came as a weird echo in the rocks. “Marvin, pussy boy. It's time to die.” Then a rocket hit nearby.
“Son of a bitch,” Marvin said, rising and firing a blast at the sumac. A moment later, he heard a groan and some shuffling in the rocks. He peaked over a boulder, and as he did, something whizzed in from the rear.
An arrow glanced off the boulder, and as he spun, a second one ripped through his shoulder - the force so great it popped his collarbone, making it a crushed chicken wing. Tissue smeared stone.
He was able to follow through and shoot; a white bolt of pain flashing across his eyes as he saw the Remington blast kick Dan in the midsection. It bent him into a V and lifted him up into some bushes, pretty much torn in half, and certainly dead.
Marvin fell to his knees, pain from the arrow forcing him to grind his teeth. Sumac and blood became fire in his eyes. “Damn that Dan. I thought Jimmy already had him out.”
He didn't have a chance now. He was down, unable to lift the gun with his wounded arm. He managed to get the Bowie into his left hand, but it wouldn't be enough to take out Jimmy.
And he could hear him coming through the rocks. Then he appeared at the side of the outcropping, grinning from ear to ear as he noted Marvin's condition.
Still grinning, he walked up, lowered his launcher, and took out his pistol. “Don't feel bad, Marvin,” he said. “It's all very peaceful in the grave. Hell, you won't know you're a loser anymore.”
He aimed, and then Marvin suddenly flew up - the Bowie flashing, going straight for Jimmy's skull. It went in and the gun went off - which made them both losers. Marvin falling back with a bullet in his chest, and Jimmy looking like a stunned ape, going down with a Bowie planted between his eyes.
Some people are fortunate and go to heaven, but Marvin went to hell. He felt something being ripped from his head, and then he saw his wife's angry face. She threw the VR gear to the side. “Marvin, how many times have I told you to stay away from little Tommy's game toys? Grow up; you're an accountant not a kid. The lawn needs mowing and you didn't get the groceries yet. I want you to . . . and . . . .”
His head spun, he covered his eyes with his hands. If he took any more of this, it would be unforgivable. He'd taken shit all his life. Mary, the boss. Always kicking him, always nagging him, and pushing him. This was his chance, his only chance to shut her up once and for all. Reaching in his pocket, he found his letter opener, and then he came up and planted it in her right eye.
Marvin didn't even watch her fall, but heard the thump as he went back to his son's gear, picked up and . . . .
Marvin snuffed his cigar and studied the forest scene below. Odors of toadstools and rot penetrated his nostrils. He raised the rifle . . . .
THE GRAND PRIZE
© By Gary L Morton
Dudley stepped out of Miracle Food Mart and saw a skinny black kid putting a coin in the new gumball machine. Dropping his grocery bags, he watched the kid work the machine. He didn't approve of the kid's earring or shorts-only attire, and he blushed as he felt an unwanted erection rising. As he watched the kid twisting the selection dial his inner conflict eased to a hypocritical frown. He grinned as the lights became starbursts on the machine.
This gumball machine was designed as a robot with a wide, squat, plasti-metal body. Its arms and legs were made of big silver rings. Its head was a huge clear plastic bubble full of gumballs and its clouded plastic chest held the prizes. It had a big dial on its belly and it growled as the kid turned it; a series of beeps followed, then it rocked with spacey sound-blast explosions and spun its head of gumballs. It fell silent as a gumball and prize rolled out of the wide slot.
The kid dashed away with his gumball and beeping toy and Dudley jingled a pocket full of coins as he stepped up to the machine. Now this was a machine he approved of - a nice machine, and it looked like a real robot, not like one of those lousy super-D video games with screens full of violence.
Popping in his coin, he turned the dial and waited for his gumball. The friendly robot went through its motions, only this time its chest lit up and the words GRAND PRIZE began to flash.
Dudley scooped out his gumball, but the prize didn't show. He tried to shake the machine but it wouldn't budge. The grand prize appeared to be a rip off. As he was about to walk away, he heard something click in the slot. Like a greedy kid, he quickly snatched it up.
Its size was amazing, about as big as ten gumballs, but it didn't appear to be anything, just a plastic bubble containing golden liquid with something silver at the centre. Turning it over in his hand he looked at its bottom, which was dull silver with some sort of code engraved on it.
Back at the car, he reached in the glove compartment for his magnifier. It turned out that the silver prize was sealed in a grainy sort of opaque plastic and golden liquid. He tried to crack it open and to his surprise, it lit up.
Dudley was more than amazed as he watched a movie scene appear in the bubble. It was like a tiny holograph, with hypnotic effect. Some type of new video technology. He'd seen nothing like it before. In the scene there were two cars; a strange and spacey sort of police cruiser and a small red compact like his own stopped in an alley. The cruiser's door opened and two officers with green faces got out. They appeared more robot than human; their helmets like bubbles. One officer had his gun out and the other had his club at ready. They looked like something from a cartoon and not much of a threat.
With a wave of his hand, the lead officer forced the driver to step out. He showed as a clownish little man holding something behind his back.
Another wave of the cop's hand and the man brought his hands forward. Something was in the guy's right hand and the cop quickly snatched it and pocketed it.
Drugs, maybe a bag of cocaine. Serves him right to be busted, Dudley thought as he adjusted the big magnifier for a better look. Then he winced as the officer with the club swung it.
An electric charge came with the blow, sending the man off his feet. He fell to the pavement and seemed to be looking up into Dudley's eyes. But Dudley couldn't help some guy in a gumball prize and he didn't want to help anyway. He watched with morbid interest as the man was dragged clear of the car and deeper into the alley.
One cop unscrewed the top of his club and removed what looked to be knives and tools of some sort. Seconds later, they were cutting into the little man's body, performing some sort of sick operation. A knowing grin appeared on the bigger cop's face as he took a tool to the man's head. It was some kind of laser and it looked like they were going to open his skull.
“My God, they're maniacs!” Dudley exclaimed. The man's whole body was quivering like death after life after death, but it was alive in some way, though without a brain. The cops had their backs to Dudley and they appeared to be carefully placing the brain in a transparent case. Then they turned and grinned with the bigger cop patting the other robo-cop on the back.
Another stomach-shaking moment passed then the scene vanished into golden liquid. He held the bubble and it was only at this point that Dudley realized what he'd been watching and became enraged.
“The rotten sickos!” he exclaimed.
Shaking like a leaf, he sat behind the wheel mumbling, and then he started the engine and drove away. Keeping the prize in his hand, he gave it an occasional knock against the steering wheel.
“They'll pay, the creeps behind these evil robot gumball machines – trying to turn our neighbourhood kids into sickos with despicable video technology. It's the work of Satan! I'll get the word to my church group, and we'll smash these machines just like we smashed that place that distributed abortion fact sheets and gay marriage information booklets.”
The whole thing was so disturbing Dudley forgot his destination was Jerry's place and a special prayer meeting. He drove on, pursing his lips and ruminating as he thought about the bizarre events. Slowly, his head cleared, and he suddenly noticed that he had another unwanted erection. His face became fire-red with shame and he took his hands off the wheel and covered his crotch.
A telephone pole loomed ahead and he hit the wheel, swerving wildly as he continued down the narrow one-way street. Once he'd regained control, he turned into an alley and stopped partway down for a breather.
But he didn't get a breather; a police cruiser pulled in behind him and parked. A minute passed. In the rearview mirror, he saw the cops watching him and talking on the radio. Shit! Maybe they saw me swerve and it's going to be a reckless driving charge, Dudley thought as a cop with a gun drawn appeared at his window. With a sheepish smile of surrender, he got out.
“What are you holding behind your back?” the cop said.
“Just a prize I got in a gum machine,” Dudley said, holding it up. Then it sank in that this green-faced guy wasn't an ordinary cop.
“He's lying,” the second green cop said as he stepped up. “We've got verification on our query. He's in illegal possession of an intergalactic energy cell. It was passed to him by the robot smuggler we've been chasing.”
Dudley tried to speak, to deny it, but he choked, and before he could get a word out he was struck in the face by a club and sent flying in the air.
As he landed, he heard the boss cop talking. “Protocol in this case is slightly different from the usual. We have to remove and package his brain, as it will be put on trial at the nearest outpost. The body must be preserved for return in the case he's found innocent.”
As they dragged him away from the car and deeper into the alley, he looked up at the sky. Then it all went black. When he awoke, he saw the words GRAND PRIZE flashing in two large robot eyes. The eyes of the gumball robot. He'd escaped trial as his brain had been stolen. Unfortunately, he was still on earth without a body and now a prize in the robot's chest. Above, the sun was like another robot eye watching, and then he heard a series of spacey sound-blaster explosions and alien laughter ….
---The End –
That Beautiful Feeling
© By Gary L Morton
Edgar Allen Poe had favored the idea of poetry as appealing only to the sense of beauty. Curtis agreed. Curtis also believed that life itself should be beauty, and today his feelings were close to being blissful. The park showed as a haze of enchantment around him, but there wasn't any exaltation or great sense of poetic discernment in his mood. The foliage, flowers and the colors of the dashing children were wonderful if ill defined, like one explosion or splash of expressionist paint.
It was a pity the illusion wouldn't last. A minute or a moment here and there and things would fall flat before him. He wasn’t a poet and currents of emotional splendor didn’t run in his mind. As it was, the good of his life was the odd lucky flash, always left unexpressed.
This time it was sunlight mirrored by windows that put his feet flat back in reality. He was approaching the old stone building at the end of the park walk, which was his place of employment. It was a grim place in his thoughts, and many cobwebbed things were in it. He thought of it as the prison of his life. His wife was a fixture there, although she didn't work there. She had a special lack of beauty. Mainly she was a mistake of youth; being a fool, he'd married a plain girl his parents approved of . . . and if the flower of beauty fades, the weed of plainness mutates. Even the thought of Ann was a blow to decency, and he would always try to think of her as just a word to spare himself the picture.
Now the word tumbled in his mind and with it came the second stage of sobriety, appearing as grayness at the end of the grim tunnel. Yes, today he was getting rid of Ann. Down the road there would be pretty women and a part of his soul would be saved. Not that he was doing it for lust. Just being with a refined lady would be enough, and he didn't mind the idea of paying for it.
Good old Amtac, and good old Jake, he thought as the security guard let him pass through the turnstile to the elevators. Yes, good old Jake and his love of reminiscing and the past. In fact it was because he was such a bore that he'd earned the name good old Jake. There wasn't anything that didn't remind Jake of the way it was in the old days. But all the suffering Jake had put him through had a payoff. Jake was a little on the dishonest side; he'd used Amtac equipment to invent a new drug. He'd even tested it on Amtac lab animals. If Jake was found out, he'd be shuffled out in a hush-hush affair. They'd never let it get out that he was testing a sort of designer strychnine on animals, killing them horribly.
Why did Jake do it? Well, it was because a pal of his from the old days was an insignificant actor that wanted a drug that'd make his face twitch like he'd been dosed with strychnine, only without harming him. Jake failed of course. Jake always failed. His new drug killed rabbits faster than bullets could.
Now, it has to be the perfect crime, Curtis thought as he unlocked a heavy metal cabinet. Edgar Allen Poe, the clever fellow, had favored thinking things through before going ahead with them. And Curtis pictured the upcoming events all while fancying he was Poe thinking through a plot. It was beauty of a sort. He would pop home at lunch, slip the colorless, odorless liquid in Ann's drink and she'd die. She'd convulse like she'd taken strychnine, and the homicide fellows would check for that. But there'd be nothing. It was a new drug of unusual composition. Ann's death would be listed as natural, and for sure, Jake wouldn't open his mouth about it.
Sunshine broke through; ice cracked in his mind. He watched people pass on the street. The little things made them happy. That he knew. Only a fool would think happiness was within. Surround yourself with those beautiful little things, and you'll be happy. Yes, he knew the secret of life, and his joy would be real. The reality of beauty would be his, and in a way, he pitied those poor deluded idiots out on the street. They were probably happy about going to work or something equally ridiculous.
Ann served him some tuna salad. Ann was such a dear, and he ate with relish, knowing she would never suspect the truth. She looked at him with motherly eyes. In her pasty-faced kind of way, she adored her husband. Then she took a sip of lemonade and the situation exploded. The table went over and china shattered as she began to twitch and dance like a marionette. Curtis ducked back, feeling satisfaction mingle with surprise. He could see her face twisting like a demonic mask. It was the only hideous sight that had ever made him smile. Ann was still shaking, bent double on the floor when he dashed out and returned to work.
Curtis wasn't at all surprised when a policewoman arrived at Amtac, but the color quickly drained from his face when the news wasn't of a death. His hands shook, yet he took what pleasure he could from the policewoman's pretty face as she drove him to the hospital. On the way, he learned that a repairman had found her as he'd planned. But why hadn't she died?
“The doctor thought you should be at her side,” the policewoman said as they entered the emergency wing, then what light he had left in his mind turned to gloom as they approached the end of the hall. A doctor beckoned and they went in to find Ann surrounded by the usual intensive care equipment. Her face was covered by a mask and he thought he could hear her mumbling feebly, “Curtis, Curtis.”
“Why is she wearing a mask?” he said with genuine surprise in his tone.
Rather than answer, the doctor gently removed the mask. “We're not sure what she ingested, but it has destroyed her facial muscles. They won't relax and resume their natural state. You're lucky to still have her. She'll recover of course, but I doubt her looks can be saved.”
“She's a dedicated woman,” the policewoman said. “She's been calling your name all afternoon.”
Curtis turned to stone and remained silent as Ann's hideous face rose up, killing his dreams. He knew his future was hell. “Curtis, Curtis,” she mumbled and at first he choked, then he shook all over like he'd taken some of the drug himself. Falling to his knees, he wept.
--- The End ---
© By Gary L Morton
Count Varsook tossed his black cape up elegantly, revealing the dusky gray lining as he spun on his heel and faced the mirror. A portion of cracked, chipped skull was all the reflection he had.
“Damn!” he said. Three hundred years old and he still couldn't remember about mirrors. At the dresser, he patted some AfterDark on his neck - reflection or not he knew how uninviting a five o'clock shadow could look on an aging face. And tonight he was hungry - his appetite had faded some over the years, often he took a fresh victim just to keep up appearances. “There is no rest for the wicked,” he thought, and then he sighed.
As he was pomading his hair, he heard a rap at the door. Night was freshly fallen so he strode over fearlessly. No one was outside the door; brilliant city lights formed a rainbow in blurry tears. He reached in his cape for his contacts. His eyes adjusted and as he was about to shut the door, he looked down and saw a baby in a basket.
He carried the baby inside, taking note of the blue blanket. Scratching his silvering head, he figured that maybe some city agency had mistaken him for a foster parent and delivered him a baby. He definitely didn't want the burping little beast; baby blood was about as tasty as juice from sour crab apples.
The Count finished his toilet by sweeping his hair back dramatically, and then he turned to check on the baby. It was sleeping peacefully, sucking on the bottle of warm blood he'd given it. He decided to go out and then ponder the matter later. Spinning on his heels he became a bat in a flash, flew out the window, and off toward the gibbous moon.
In the dew-cool quiet of 5.30 a.m. the Count returned, his long shadow moved by the window as he lit up the candelabra. He'd forgotten about the baby and was planning on a little reading in his tiny library.
A yawning Count Varsook turned to cross the room. What he saw froze him in his tracks. Bloody handprints were smeared across the wall. Tables, lamps, and ashtrays were knocked over, and a half-eaten body lay on the hardwood floor. It was the body of a mailman - his mouth was open to scream, but his tongue was torn out. A hole of black and blood was all that was left of his belly and one of his arms was gone.
There was no sign of the baby, but the side door was ajar. Spotting the baby bottle, the Count went over to pick it up. Just then, a puppy bounded in the door and dropped a mouthful of intestines on his shoes. The puppy sat at his feet and licked the blood off its paws.
“A wolf pup,” the Count said to himself, and then he glanced around the gory room. “Werebabies do the darnedest things,” he said, wondering what to do about the pup.
The quiet amplified the footsteps of someone coming up the street; the pup bounded out the door, followed by the Count. “Heel boy! Heel!” the Count hollered, his voice echoing down the street.
------ The End -------
All I Want is Santa
© By Gary L Morton
Wind and snow ghosted high above him and huge wet flakes began to swirl down. They spun into his reddening eyes and for a moment the Christmas lights, decorations, the crowd, and reflections melted and formed crayon scenes of a massacre. Something bright came around the corner, and as his vision cleared, he recognized the man as Santa.
Sheltered by an alley doorway and a garbage bin, jolly Santa lit a cigar and pulled a bottle of cheap sherry from his sack.
As he frowned at Santa, he remembered his father saying - Santa is a bad man, teaching children to be greedy. Yes, he’s a bad man, he thought as he crept up and swung his metal bar, cracking Santa on the head. Santa, the nasty fella must pay, he said as he hit him again and again, watching some chocolates, cherries and mints rolling in the spattering blood.
Inside in the washroom he washed the blood out of Santa's costume, then put it on and strolled across the tiled floor to the exit. Adjusting his suit, he looked across the mall and focused on the fake reindeer and Santa's booth. Sticky gumby men, sugarplums and the instruments he’d use in a New Year's torture chamber fell through his mind as he walked to Santa's throne.
He was early, no lineup yet - an adorable little blond girl came out of nowhere and jumped to his lap, and he couldn't spot any parents with her. The only person watching was a nasty looking freckle-faced boy.
Lucky day, I've found a stray already, he thought, as his eyes went to her ghostly pale face.
What’s your name, little girl? Angela, that's nice. And where are your parents? Oh, you've run off from your mom. So that's why you’re so pale. Well, well. How about telling Santa what you want for Christmas?
As she spoke, he really felt like Santa, soaring with his sleigh through a shaken bubble of blue and flurries. Cones, needles, wreathes, presents showering down as he flew. But the people below were greedy, their uplifted faces twisted mean, and his good gifts turned to fluttering money and a shower of gold coins. Angered, he swooped down, grinding hooves and runners into the crowd.
Blood showered his dreams, no one was watching, he was about to stuff a sock in the little girl's mouth and thrust her into the bag. Then it would be off to the North Pole and his mistletoe.
But the weird little boy was still watching, and in an uncanny way. The vile urchin had teeth like cat fangs and he grinned like he was hungry for a taste of Santa’s leg.
White Christmas was playing in the mall -- he was somehow picking up on the boy's thoughts, and he shook his head, trying to get rid of the images. But he couldn't, and he saw things through the boy's eyes - the colorless faces in the crowd, pale reflections in shop windows, eyes full of tinsel and silliness, mouths that were an empty stamp. Then there was Santa - his nose a pink-veined knob, cheeks like rosy wine, a plump bottle of sweetness. Santa brightened Christmas with red firelight. And he longed to sink his teeth into . . . .
A sudden bang and shattering glass startled them, and the girl cut her wish list short. Gunshots; it was a robbery over at the fur shops. A wounded clerk was falling, his face mashed to cherry pie by a shotgun kick right between the eyes. Two masked crooks flashed their sawed-offs as they fled with some goods.
All eyes were on the armed men. It was Santa's moment - grabbing a sock he moved to stuff it in the little girl's throat. And he was just getting it in when the little boy landed on him.
He howled -- his best Santa yell, but the kid had the strength of a tiger. Fangs penetrated, Santa could choke, but he couldn’t shout. His blood flew up in ribbons as he kicked and slid down in his throne.
Pinned on the floor, he had the feeling of looking up from the bottom of an immense black chimney. The little girl was above him with the Christmas stocking in her hand - pale and ghostly, she floated straight up to the higher levels. And he heard her singing as the hungry boy growled and sucked his blood.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. ---The End---
End of the Line
© By Gary L Morton
Jack had been driving so long the haze seemed like cataracts on his eyes. Clouds of neon and he was driving in the sky, feeling all right as long as he didn't stop. At the wheel, he had power and freedom. When he pulled over, he had only the commands - Janet's commands. He glanced at her, finding her eyes aglow with garish light. She was like a female satyr - coarse, sexually demanding and unbelievably cruel.
It was fatal attraction; she was a femme fatale. When he’d fallen for her he’d fallen in deep, and he didn't have to think to know he'd never get out. The things he'd done for her were so terrible his eyes welled with tears at the thought.
STOUVILLE NEXT EXIT was on the sign, and Jack caught the gleam in Janet's eyes. It reflected everywhere, making the endless lights stars, broken glass and razor blades. She'd want to stop and do it in Stouville. He knew without asking. He didn't want to think about it but he had to - the thoughts twisted in his mind like an energized snake. Only now while he was driving could he make a decision. Only now could he defy the power. It was amazing he hadn't done it before. The way it was she‘d sing to him like a siren and he’d always get back behind the wheel. The spell had kept him drifting from town to town - hell, they'd done the entire Eastern seaboard before heading west in Canada.
Highways went on forever. When he was a kid, the shopping malls went on forever. It was all in haze, but now it could be more - for Janet, Stouville would be the end of the line. A glance at her and she was turning to him. He knew she hadn't read his thoughts. Of course not. She was insensitive; her power was in commanding him. If she could read minds she‘d be different.
The exit was ahead, a darker funnel of exhaust in the haze. Janet's face went cold and robotic. “Turn off at Stouville,” she commanded.
Coming around the bend, they burst out of the haze. Janet crackled with life, looking around, edgy in her seat, waiting for it to happen. A dinner was on the roadside ahead, and it came up so fast it seemed to jump out at them.
“Pull in,” Janet said, even though a police car was in the lot.
The place was the Little Red Dinner to be exact, and the police cruiser was pulling out. As Jack rolled up to the big front window, he remembered his decision - Stouville, end of the line. He bit into it like it was an electric eel or something he could suck power from, and the confusion made him doubly nervous and excited. He hoped Janet wouldn't notice. He wanted his defiance to be a surprise, something to hit her with in the end.
Inside he ate a piece of apple pie, giving the honey-blond waitress occasional smiles. She was a highway whore, no doubt about it, but he liked the place. It had a jukebox with a front like the grill of a big truck. An old Neil Young song floated from it, making for an easy atmosphere; it was almost like being in the haze on the highway, or it would've been if it weren't for Janet glaring nastily from the Jaguar.
Janet had that bitch look, and he could see the waitress giving her suspicious glances. Then he noticed he was the only patron left in the dinner. “Damn!” he said with a mouthful of apple pie as he realized that Janet would take advantage of the situation.
“Something wrong with the pie?” the blond said, stepping over.
“Yeah,” he said as he received Janet's command. “I'll show you.” From under his nylon jacket, he pulled a noose, and with incredible speed, he bolted over the counter. He had the rope around her neck quick enough to choke off her second scream. Pulling it tight, he began to drag her, kicking and struggling to the parking lot. She shattered the glass door with her heel as they went out, and her dress got torn, but generally, Jack found her very easy work.
It was neon heaven; the lights filled him with animal joy. Now was the time for his surprise, and he wasn't let down. Janet commanded him to bring her to the car, but he refused - yelled back at her defiantly. “I'm going to do it here baby! Get out and watch! It's Stouville, end of the line!”
A heel hit him in the groin; the waitress was still fighting him. He flattened her with a couple punches, and then he went over to Janet. She was devastated, sitting in the car frozen, her eyes as dead as mica. Carefully, proudly, Jack led her from the car, and they were in the haze clouds until he gently put her down beside the waitress.
Jack put his hand on the noose, and with his free hand, he took out a Tanto blade. “Now you're going to watch me do it, Janet. Then there'll be no escape, baby. Not this time. This time we'll sit and wait. It's Stouville, end of the line.”
And that's how it was - Jack did his thing and they sat and waited. It truly was the end of the line because the next car to arrive was a police cruiser. Yet it didn't end right then; the lone cop got out and went weak at the knees. The vision was ghastly, a man sitting in the blood pooling from a corpse, and arguing with an inflatable rubber doll, calling it Janet. In the neon, it was just too unreal; it hazed to spots in his eyes and put him down.
Then Janet watched as Jack put the noose around his neck and threw the rope over a lamppost. Moths swirled in the yellow light, darkness was beyond, and the last meal was blood and flesh for the rats … at the end of the line.
---The End ---